Terminator: Dark Fate

Release: Friday, November 1, 2019

→On Demand 

Written by: David Goyer; Justin Rhodes; Billy Ray

Directed by: Tim Miller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rated: R

Running Time: 128 mins.

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

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Photo credits: IMP Awards; IMDb 

Hold the Dark

Release: Friday, September 28, 2018 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Macon Blair

Directed by: Jeremy Saulnier

Apparently with his latest film Hold the Dark indie sensation Jeremy Saulnier has lost the audience somewhat. I can see why. In terms both physical and emotional his Alaska-set mystery may be his coldest movie yet. He plunges us into an ice bath, a world where most of us do not belong — a world defined by hostility and populated by unfriendly and grizzled folk who add little comfort to proceedings. Add to that the fact the story doesn’t offer much in the way of “action” or good, clean payoff and you’ve got the recipe for an uncompromisingly strange and bleak experience.

I loved it though. I think. No, I definitely did. In my mind this is the epitome of everything the native Virginian is about when it comes to style and substance. His fourth feature film is also an adaptation of a 2014 novel by William Giraldi, so is it perhaps possible criticisms over narrative convolution and vexing moral turpitude could be applied to the source material too? I haven’t read the book of course, so I couldn’t say. However there is a new reality I need to address: this is the first time Saulnier has gone the way of an adaptation; it’s entirely possible he’s lost something in translation or perhaps the novel itself is one of those “Well, you can’t really adapt it because (such and such excuse).”

Hold the Dark plays host to dueling narratives, one focused upon a writer and veteran wolf tracker named Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) who’s summoned by a grieving mother, Medora Slone (Riley Keough in a very strange turn), to the remote Alaskan village of Keelut to investigate the disappearance of her child — merely one of several thought to be the victims of hungry wolves. At this point she’ll settle with just having the body returned for to give it a proper burial. When he arrives in town however, things are not entirely what they seem and soon he finds himself in a fight for survival in a place where chaos reigns.

The second through-line adopts the perspective of Medora’s soldier hubby Vernon (a shit-your-britches scary Alexander Skarsgård), who, after being wounded in battle somewhere in the Middle East, returns to his frozen home town and to the grim news concerning his six-year-old son. After being picked up at the airport by his longtime friend and fellow father-in-mourning Cheeon (First Nations actor Julian Black Antelope) he goes to meet with local law enforcement, lead by the stoic and upstanding Donald Marium (James Badge Dale), and the coroner (Brian Martell), and . . . let’s just say the guy’s pretty hard to placate, even at this early stage. But then another development further twists the knife and carnage soon erupts in Keelut, threatening to tear apart the town and its inhabitants, some of whom hold an uncanny relationship with their icy environs, like the enigmatic Illanaq (played by Tantoo Cardinal, indigenous Canadian actress and Member of the Order of Canada).

Hold the Dark is as much a journey through grief and loss as it is a physical flirtation with the supernatural. The later movements in particular butt up against stuff that’s maybe not meant to be understood (what a cop-out line Tom). It’s a deliberately paced drama that becomes increasingly menacing — don’t let that midway-point daylight massacre fool you — and in which motives appear to be driven more by madness than rationale. That’s what really drew me in to the movie, the extremity of both environment and characters who, consistent with the Saulnier aesthetic, are desperate to do what it takes to survive. That element of desperation is elevated to an all-time high here, admittedly. The suffering is real, palpable. It’s certainly a film of extremes.

It’s also a total team effort. Saulnier gets plenty of help from the likes of Danish cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck, who captures the spirit of the wild in stunning and often savage detail, the editing provided by Julia Bloch will make you feel every bone crunch and every bullet piercing through leathery skin. And I’m not sure where we would be without this smartly chosen, chillingly effective cast (kudos to Avy Kaufman). Jeffrey Wright acquits himself wonderfully in a quiet, almost meditative lead performance — I’ve never viewed the guy as leading man material but clearly I’m mistaken. And I really enjoyed James Badge Dale as a beacon of decency trying to shine in this inhospitable spit of land.

With Hold the Dark Saulnier has created a truly singular experience, a snow-swept, blood-soaked Neo-western that pits the unpredictability of human behavior against the indiscriminate brutality of Mother Nature. Who is the real villain? Is there such a thing out here? Days later and I’m still having that debate with myself and I love that about this movie.

Not quite the Drunk Tank

Recommendation: Hold the Dark is absolutely not a film that will gel with everyone — as I noted at the top of this review. It’s a heavy, maybe even depressing viewing experience that becomes almost about spiritual suffering. It customarily boasts excellent performances from a great cast. Screenwriter and frequent Saulnier collaborator Macon Blair has an ear for natural albeit harsh dialogue, while Saulnier has yet again proven himself an auteur in the making. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 125 mins.

Quoted: “When we’re killed, the past is killed. When kids are killed, that’s different. When kids are killed, the future dies. There’s no life without a future.”

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

John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum

Release: Friday, May 17, 2019

→ Theater

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

Directed by: Chad Stahelski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rated: hard R

Running Time: 130 mins.

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

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

The Girl in the Spider’s Web

Release: Friday, November 9, 2018 

→Theater

Written by: Jay Basu, Fede Álvarez; Steven Knight

Directed by: Fede Álvarez

2018 has been a productive year for Claire Foy, star of Fede Álvarez’s gritty, Scandinavian-set crime thriller The Girl in the Spider’s Web. In the span of nine months the British actress, perhaps most recognized as Queen Elizabeth II in Netflix’s critically-acclaimed drama series The Crown, has not only appeared but starred in three films, two of which were major studio productions. In March we saw her come undone at the seams in Steven Soderbergh’s iPhone-shot, psychological thriller Unsane, and just last month embody resilience as Janet Armstrong, wife of astronaut Neil Armstrong, in Damien Chazelle’s First Man. With Spider’s Web she proves she can take a life as ruthlessly as anyone. (Or, you know, spare it too. But we know better, this Girl isn’t big on compassion.)

Seven years after David Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first installment in Swedish novelist Stieg Larsson’s so-called Millennium Series, and it’s out with Rooney Mara and in with Claire Foy as Lisbeth (that’s a silent ‘h’) Salander, a steely-nerved spy/computer hacker and brutal dispatcher of men “who hurt women,” a vigilante who bears the scars of her own abusive history. It’s also out with Daniel Craig as journalist Mikael Blomkvist and in with someone else, but I’ll get to that later . . . maybe.

Even more confusingly, unless you’ve done your homework and actually seen the Swedish films adapted from each of the original three books, this belated follow-up pursues a narrative that technically kicks off a second “trilogy,” one authored not by Larsson but by David Lagercrantz, who was granted rights for continuity after the original author passed away suddenly in 2004. Lagercrantz’s first contribution to the series details Salander’s bloody dealings with cyber-terrorists and corrupt government officials alike as she attempts to recover and destroy a doomsday program created by a man named Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant). Along the way, Lisbeth must also deal with a past that comes back to bite her. Like a . . . like a spider.

First things first. Foy is enough to get you caught up in Spider’s Web. She takes a pedestrian thriller and punches it up with a physically bruising performance. Even if Foy is inheriting a lot of the character simply by sitting in a make-up chair — that jet-black hair and shoulder/back tat are definite and transformative trademarks — she plays emotionally detached quite well, her line delivery clipped in a manner that’s brittle and harsh, almost robotic. She perpetuates the tragic, enigmatic aura surrounding the character while delivering a number of harsh blows to her big-bodied opponents.

The story itself isn’t quite as distinguished. Spider’s Web is a pretty formal action flick that hinges upon a macguffin and its being kept out of the wrong hands. Who are the wrong hands exactly? Well, they call themselves The Spiders, which isn’t a very interesting name even if it is conceptually appropriate. Led by Claes Bang’s intimidating Holtser, they’re a shady organization to whom Lisbeth may or may not have a personal connection. Meanwhile, a child savant (Christopher Convery) proves just as crucial to the mission objective as a certain femme fatale (Silvia Hoeks, good but a plain Jane villain compared to her Luv in the Blade Runner sequel). The boy’s affinity for numbers and patterns just might help forward The Spiders’ nefarious agenda. Further complicating matters is corrupt deputy director of Swedish security Gabrielle Grane (Norwegian actress Synnøve Macody Lund).

Lisbeth may be a capable heroine, but she will also need more help than her computer hacking skills to combat her foes this time. Aiding in the quest is the return of the aforementioned and new-look Michael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason), and hacking friend Plague (Cameron Britton). And for contrast’s sake, we even get an American in on the action in the form of Lakeith Stanfield‘s NSA security agent Edwin Needham. His motives may be guided more by plot than professional objectivity but Stanfield is a good actor and watching him round out the numbers for Team Salander is undeniably fun.

Álvarez, whose previous film (the mainstream-unfriendly Don’t Breathe) is distinguished for his directorial creativity, certainly isn’t as inspired here even with $43 million to throw around. But Spider’s Web‘s lack of chutzpah might not be entirely on his shoulders, considering the material he’s adapting isn’t quite as politically and intellectually charged as what came before. With the passing of the baton from Larsson to Lagercrantz came a (so I’m told, fairly radical) change of style, the latter doubling down on pulpier action. As has already been proven, Álvarez is adept at spiking the adrenaline, whether that’s an early scene where the girl with a black Ducati vroom-vrooms away in the nick of time across a sliver of ice or a big set piece involving a movable bridge helps her evade capture for just another minute.

Spider’s Web is a classic case of style over substance, Foy’s uniquely restrained performance defiant in the face of all that generic cybercrime stuff. In the end it proves to be a competent action flick but it lacks the depth, both in terms of world-building and what we come to learn about the character itself, to truly qualify as a so-called “new Dragon Tattoo story.”

“Ugh. Get a room you two. . .”

Recommendation: Your fairly standard action romp elevated by a strong central performance and an appropriately icy setting. Fans of the actress are encouraged to apply while fans of Larsson’s original books might want to take a rain check. Dragon Tattoo 2.0 this ain’t.  

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “Are you not Lisbeth Salander, the righter of wrongs? The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? The girl who hurts men who hurt women?”

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

mother!

Release: Friday, September 15, 2017

→Theater

Written by: Darren Aronofsky

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky

No one makes movies like Darren Aronofsky. Then again, does anyone dare?

With mother! the enfant terrible of modern Hollywood has produced quite possibly his most polarizing and interpretive work yet. That does take into consideration his previous effort, the controversial Noah epic. And I haven’t forgotten The Fountain (how could I?) Yet the plunge into absolute anarchy we unwittingly commit ourselves to in his new movie is so intense, so absurdly cruel and caustic that forgetting whatever hells he has put us through before actually becomes easier done than said.

Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem‘s baptism into the world of Aronofsky has them playing husband and wife, living in an elaborate but lonely Victorian home in the middle of nowhere, USA. They’re working to rebuild after a devastating house fire. Well, “mother” has been doing most of the work, while her Husband — no character is given a name, just a label, one of the film’s many aspects open for interpretation — has been moping around, struggling with writer’s block. Ostensibly we are here to witness the evolution of a seemingly idyllic relationship and the sacrifices one must make to be a part of a marriage. The give-and-take dynamic that makes a relationship both a joy and a responsibility. Or something along those lines.

That’s the impression we’re given with mother!‘s quieter, though never comfortable, opening half anyway. But things take a decidedly nasty turn with the appearance of a supposed “doctor” (Ed Harris) on their doorstep, who mistakenly assumes their grand abode to be a bed-and-breakfast. The Husband, rejuvenated by the presence of an outsider, who also just happens to be a big fan of his writing, decides a sleepover is in order, much to the chagrin of “mother.” “Doctor” then invites his drunk wife (Michelle Pfeiffer in a searing role) to stay. Bizarre complications arise when their sons arrive soon thereafter.

From here, it’s a series of increasingly outrageous intrusions upon the sanctuary that is one’s home, which is then torpedoed into a brutal, often literal, assault on “mother” herself. I liken the experience to those college parties I attended that were simply overwhelmed with bodies. Parties in which anonymity could become dangerous in a hurry. The keggars where you start off recognizing 90% of the room but by night’s end there are strangers diving off the roof into the grass because “it looked like water from above.” Aronofsky takes the concept of an out-of-control bacchanalia to Aronofskian extremes, exponentially increasing the animosity between put-upon host and disorderly guest.

Admittedly, ‘ultimate party movie’ is a pretty basic read of the narrative — one in which elements of creationism, artistic narcissism, the state of the modern celebrity-fan relationship, and climate change denialism (or more generally, angry American politics in the age of Trump) are just as likely to be inferred. Some allusions are of course more debatable than others. mother! is steeped in Biblical references from which you can’t escape. You’ll find Cain and Abel in Domhnall and Brian Gleeson’s fraternal antagony; Jesus in “mother”‘s suffering. The way Bardem slots in between all of this becomes obvious even if you don’t devote all or most of your attention to the religious symbolism.

As much as the entire cast transform themselves here — I’m often left wondering what working with such an uncompromising artist does to those who answer the call — it is Lawrence’s brave (and bravura) performance that provides the lifeblood of the film — a slowly fraying tether between her humanity and the world in which she is forced to survive. During shooting, reportedly the actor had to be put on oxygen in between certain takes, hyperventilating well after the director had yelled “cut.” I suppose, at the very least the extreme conditions of mother! literally took Lawrence’s breath away. That should count for something.

For us, the masochists that we are, the ride is baffling and infuriating and similarly renders us breathless. The slow departure from any conventional sense of reality legitimately defies categorization and, to some extent, criticism itself. Everything you see in the frame can be symbolic or it can mean absolutely nothing. And maybe that’s all the film is, chaos that needs no justification. A giant middle finger to reason and logic. This is a modern Picasso that demands an audience, whoever that may be.

Recommendation: In the interest of full disclosure: using Aronofsky’s almost entirely fresh cast — only Marcia Jean Kuntz, here playing a “thief,” has had roles in previous films of his — as a measuring stick to judge whether the film is something you’ll like might be a bad idea. Better to prioritize director vs. the cast, because come the end of this you’ll no longer recognize Katniss Everdeen. And Anton Chigur was mean, but he has nothing on this guy. 

Rated: hard R

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “MURDER! MURDER!”

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

What Happened to Monday (Seven Sisters)

Release: Friday, August 18, 2017 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Max Botkin; Kerry Williamson

Directed by: Tommy Wirkola

In the context of Norwegian filmmaker Tommy Wirkola’s dystopian crime thriller What Happened to Monday — a.k.a. Seven Sisters — China’s methods of dealing with an extraordinary overpopulation crisis would be no less controversial but they would also no longer be the exception; rather, the opposite. In a not-so-distant future we’ve exceeded Earth’s carrying capacity and organizations like the Child Allocation Bureau have become necessary evils, instituting similar if not harsher one-child-per-family mandates across the globe. Unlike in China, where violators face stiff financial penalties, in the film excess offspring are taken away and put into cryogenic sleep, after which they’re promised to “wake up to a better world.”

Terrence Settman (Willem Dafoe)’s life becomes impossibly complicated when his wife dies after giving birth to identical septuplets (all played by one actress at the child and adult stages — Clara Read and Noomi Rapace respectively). To protect his illegally large family Terrence establishes a complex set of rules that will allow his daughters to come and go from the house with some degree of freedom. Each is named after a day of the week and is allowed to go out on “their day.” When they do, they assume a collective, physical identity of one Karen Settman, their mother. To keep a consistent image every detail of each trip outside is shared with the group so everyone remains on the same page.

This routine is maintained for some 30 years, until finally one of the siblings fails to return home after work. Fearing her capture at the hands of the C.A.B.’s head honcho Nicolette Cayman (Glenn Close), an intense, scary woman who believes the One Child Policy is the only way to save future generations from living in the same squalor, the six other ‘Karen Settmans’ debate whether to turn themselves in or risk blowing their cover by going to save the one.

Regrettably What Happened to Monday is defined by broad shapes and genre tropes. It features seven different personalities but the overall piece fails to establish one of its very own. Rapace continues to use her striking beauty to channel chameleonic qualities and they, along with her hairstylists, are put to great use here. She elevates the entire picture, giving it a bleeding heart, as does a surprisingly grounded performance from Dafoe as dear old dad. But the latter isn’t tasked with interacting with his own likeness on screen.

It’s impressive how much two actors can inform a film’s personality, yet they’re still not enough to overcome clumsy writing that throws aside logic and narrative cohesion in service of an increasingly action-laden plot. As the dire circumstances devolve the incompetence of the bad guys never ceases to amaze. It approaches something close to a farce with the number of convenient plot mechanics that force us into a grand reveal that’s never as grand or as shocking as it should have been.

Still, the film’s well-made enough to be frivolously entertaining. Wirkola’s firm if unremarkable direction gets us from Point A to Point B with enough style, grit and emotion to make What Happened to Monday an above-average dystopian drama worth recommending to those who are less fussy. And Rapace’s ability to emote more than makes up for much of the less successful thematic ruminations. As we watch a family getting torn apart in a variety of cruel ways, it’s the actress’ unique expressiveness that magnifies the emotion, that gets us to re-invest just a little bit more, in spite of everything.

Recommendation: Emotionally engaging but ultimately familiar and never as deeply cutting as it could be, as an epic family tragedy that unfolds piecewise, What Happened to Monday (Seven Sisters) offers enough solid thrills and wicked action sequences to be memorable but as a broader commentary on what’s going on in our world today as far as overpopulation, this movie fails to express its concern in a way that’s truly noticeable, much less urgent.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 123 mins.

Quoted: “What happens to one of you, happens to all of you.” 

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

Atomic Blonde

Release: Friday, July 28, 2017

→Theater

Written by: Kurt Johnstad

Directed by: David Leitch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rated: R

Running Time: 115 mins.

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

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

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

Decades Blogathon – There Will Be Blood (2007)

To cap off the Decades ’17 edition, here’s Mark’s stellar look at the much-celebrated and discussed Paul Thomas Anderson epic, There Will Be Blood. You won’t want to miss this review! Thanks once again everyone!

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Well, we’ve arrived at the final day of the Decades Blogathon – ‘7’ edition. Just as with the previous two years, it’s been a lot of fun with a host of fascinating and diverse reviews from across the board. Thanks to everyone who has taken part this year; you are all on my Christmas card list! However, my biggest thanks must go to by fellow blogathon buddy Tom – his site Thomas J is one I have followed as long as I’ve been doing this blogging game and his talent for insightful and engaging reviews has only grown over the years.This year’s blogathon focuses on movies that were released in the seventh year of the decade and for this final day, you’re getting a review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 masterpiece There Will Be Blood from yours truly. See you again next year!

Just as cinema became the preeminent…

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Silence

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Release: Friday, January 13, 2017 

[Theater]

Written by: Jay Cocks; Martin Scorsese

Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Marty’s new film is so tonally different from what he last put out it made me feel like I was atoning for all those good times I had with Jordan Belfort and company in his Wall Street-based bacchanalian. Silence is such a brutal watch I left the theater pining for them good old days of Leo snorting coke off of Margot Robbie’s chest. Fortunately Scorsese finds a way to make the suffering not only worthwhile but essential viewing.

The customarily near-three-hour running time (which is totally justified and passes by in no time at all) encapsulates a journey the auteur has been wanting to share with the world for some time — nearly 30 years as a matter of fact. Silence is no doubt a passion project for a director renowned for depicting complex morality tales fueled by themes of guilt, corruption and redemption and it carries the kind of weight that suggests this is what he has been building towards throughout a protracted and distinguished career. Whether it’s the director’s crowning achievement is debatable, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest Silence is no ordinary theatrical release. It’s a transcendent experience that will haunt you long after viewing.

Scorsese adapts his material from the 1966 novel of the same name by Japanese author Shūsakū Endō, who identified as a Roman Catholic. Endō’s sprawling saga told of the life-altering journey undertaken by two Jesuit priests who travel to Japan from Portugal in search of a mentor who goes missing and supposedly apostatizes under extreme duress. The book has inspired two other cinematic adaptations over the years but it’s hard to imagine either of them achieving the same magnitude of emotional and psychological discomfort the noted (and self-confessed lapsed) Catholic has here.

In 1600s Japan Christianity is outlawed, yet small factions still practice in secrecy in the mountainous regions surrounding colonial Nagasaki, where the Spaniard Saint Francis Xavier had decades earlier attempted to plant the seeds of Catholicism in a country that already had an established national belief system. Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has for all intents and purposes vanished. Scorsese wants to know what kinds of forces would be necessary to shake a man of his beliefs.

Now we watch as Fathers Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) similarly attempt promulgation as they are led deep into the mountains by an alcoholic fisherman named Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), a Judas-like snake in the grass who vacillates between denying his Christian roots and wanting desperately to repent. He is an enigma not worthy of our trust, unlike the rest of these “hidden Christians,” who simply yearn for a conduit through which they can confess their sins to God.

Scorsese’s meticulous, methodical direction complements an altogether brilliant screenplay that barbarically strips away hope and conviction from those who find themselves at the center of a bitter ideological conflict. Co-written with three-time collaborator Jay Cocks, Scorsese’s appropriately expansive treatment deals with some upsetting material in a refreshingly blunt but unbiased manner, as emphasized by the numerous observational shots taken at a distance from the violence visited upon the innocent by merciless shogunates like Inoue The Inquisitor (Issei Ogata). As the story unfolds we are challenged to question how much suffering is too much suffering. At what point does a cause become lost?

Several conversations take place that delineate the fundamental disagreement between practicing Buddhists and Catholics. These conversations are simultaneously fascinating and devastating to behold. Whereas Buddhists believe the individual can liberate himself from the perpetual cycle of ‘rebirth’ and ‘death’ (samsāra, which shouldn’t be literally translated as ‘suffering’ but rather a state of bliss that can never last) by choosing not to become obsessed with the material world, Christianity teaches that man can achieve salvation by governing their lives in a manner congruous with that of Jesus Christ. Of course, we all know how complicated it becomes when interpreting what is meant by following in his footsteps. All bets are off when what we’re arguing is whether or not being on Earth is merely another train station or the final destination.

Those conversations are largely what make Silence such a tough watch. Sure, the movie is violent and cruel in ways that you probably have never imagined, but it’s the stalemate we arrive at time and time again when neither party can convince the other. When no concessions can be made. What fuels emotional devastation is a combination of our steadily accrued respect for the priests and the narrative’s balanced perspective. It neither vilifies the Japanese nor glorifies Western influence. No party is entirely right and no party is completely off-base. We listen, we observe. We try to understand both views, though ultimately we are meant to empathize with one side more than the other.

Garfield, on the back of his portrayal of a similarly beleaguered soul in Mel Gibson’s tribute to real war-time hero Desmond Doss, essays a role for the ages as the Christ-like Father Rodrigues. Perhaps it’s worth noting how good Scorsese is in bringing out the absolute best in his actors, lest I lay too much at the foot of the budding British actor. Still, this is Garfield like I’ve never seen him before and it is an utterly heartbreaking performance that almost assuredly promises a nomination. Long gone it seems are the days of slinging webs in Manhattan.

If his co-star occupied the same amount of screen time, he too might’ve found himself on the ballot. Perhaps he still will. Driver’s contributions to the story, in particular that first third, are invaluable. Even though neither actor can quite convince us of their Portuguese descent — accents most notably slip when emotions run high — Driver in particular is good at reminding us of the flesh that lies beneath the cloth. He exudes self-doubt and vulnerability, at least more readily. Indeed, these are just men caught up in some extraordinary circumstances.

The mortality of these priests is what challenges us to really embrace the existential crisis at the heart of Silence. Scorsese of course is not asking the audience to do anything crazy like renounce their faith in a movie theater but he is challenging us to ponder ‘what if.’ That almost assuredly is the direction he gives his two leading men. What if what these priests are doing is actually causing more harm than good? What if you surrender everything you have known to be true for the sake of sparing others of their pain? Does self-doubt mean you have compromised everything? Does a simple physical act confirm what you feel in your heart?

Few of these questions come with answers. If we’re to pursue them, we’re better off trying post-viewing. That’s assuming answers are to be found at all. That kind of open-endedness could prove frustrating for some viewers, but I found it cathartic. Silence is a monumental achievement you have to experience for yourself, no matter what your beliefs are.

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5-0Recommendation: Whether you identify as devout, agnostic or atheist you owe it to yourself to see Martin Scorsese’s historical/religious epic. It is going to be one of the hardest movies you’ve ever tried watching but come the end of it you’ll be glad for the opportunity. As for replay value, however, Silence might prove less successful. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 161 mins.

Quoted: “I pray but I am lost. Am I just praying to silence?”

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.rogerebert.com 

Hacksaw Ridge

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Release: Friday, November 4, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Andrew Knight; Robert Schenkkan

Directed by: Mel Gibson

Unlike the hero at the heart of Mel Gibson’s first directorial effort in a decade I went into battle fully protected by a weapon: my overactive imagination. Turns out, psychological preparation is kind of necessary as you enter the gauntlet of Hacksaw Ridge‘s final hour. Things become real, and in a hurry. Of course there is violence and gore characteristic of war films but this is Mel Gibson we’re talking about.

But this is also the Mel Gibson I’ve been waiting to see for a long time. In spite of the way he once again seems to enjoy flagellating audiences with punishing sequences of human cruelty Hacksaw Ridge ultimately is worth the toiling. The paradoxical sense of uplift we feel in the moments where we are also suffering the most makes his return to filmmaking a welcomed one. I was so moved by this I couldn’t help but applaud during the credits. Meanwhile everyone else quietly filtered out. Did I feel awkward? Yes. Yes I did. But it was still the right thing to do.

Desmond Doss (portrayed by Andrew Garfield in one of the most sensational performances of the year) felt a tremendous sense of moral obligation — a sense of doing what is right not just for himself but for his country — when he enlisted as a medic in World War II. Hailing from a humble community tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, Doss became the first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor after pulling 75 men off of Hacksaw Ridge during the Battle of Okinawa, one of the bloodiest confrontations in the Pacific Theater. A devout Christian whose violent upbringing at the hands of his alcoholic, war-scarred father irrevocably changed him, Doss’ enlisting became the stuff of legend when he told his commanding officers the Sixth Commandment forbade him from lifting a weapon; that he could serve his country by saving lives as opposed to taking them.

Hacksaw Ridge is somewhat a tale of two halves — one is noticeably stronger than the other and unsurprisingly the drama genuinely becomes compelling in the latter half, when we dive headlong into hell with Private Doss, Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) and a company of men who haven’t exactly taken a shine to the Bible-thumping pacifist. Like the brave men who took to the cargo net for the Ridge, Gibson’s cameras charge into battle with a gusto that’s immediately met with some of the most grisly war action you’re likely to ever see. It’s a breathless, chaotic and disturbingly realistic account of the bloody affront to the Japanese who were slowly losing control of the island, despite heavy losses on the American side.

While the film that precedes the fight itself feels much more compressed — particularly the budding romance between Doss and the nurse he meets at the town hospital where he decides he will donate blood, the beautiful Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer) — there’s enough there to build a foundation for empathy. Perhaps this is a convenient time to forgive a film for being so contrived, but Palmer and Garfield’s chemistry feels appropriately based more upon a certain Look and Feel — both actors look of the era and their sweet romance feels unpretentious, genuine. They’re wonderful together. And while their passion for each other is palpable it’s more about the way the soldier was raised that offers the most compelling angle.

Gibson zeros in on two pivotal moments in Doss’ childhood — moments that, aside from his unwavering devotion to God, inform almost every decision he makes as an adult. One is an early scene in which Desmond and his younger brother Hal get into a play fight that turns ugly when the former smacks his brother in the head with a brick in an attempt to claim victory. Young Desmond, haunted by the fact he could have killed Hal, instead of taking a long hard look in the mirror takes a long hard look at a picture on their living room wall, a list of the Ten Commandments in a moment of silent and sincere repentance. Then, later, Doss finds himself stepping in between his father (a heartbreakingly good Hugo Weaving) and mother (Rachel Griffiths) during yet another bout of domestic violence. A pistol becomes involved. Plagued by his experiences in World War I, Tom Doss embodies the soul-crushing effects of survivor’s remorse. Desmond seems to take more after his mother, who is a strong and positive influence, despite her suffering at the hands of an unstable husband.

There’s an argument to be made against Gibson injecting blood and violence into almost every possible scene — did we need to see the needle pierce the skin? Ditto the leg injury sustained by the local mechanic, did we really need that? Words like gratuitous, self-indulgent and perverse frequently have popped up, but I’d wager this grim foreshadowing is actually not only creatively inspired but it helps prepare the viewer mentally as we leave behind the quaint Virginian town and journey out onto a smoky battlefield. Those spurts of violence are perpetuated as Doss’ idealism is met with hostility by his fellow soldiers and his commanding officers at boot camp. Watching him getting harassed unmerciful isn’t exactly pleasant.

In fact much of Hacksaw Ridge is far from comfortable viewing. As it should be. Gibson brings the horrors of war, and particularly this violent confrontation to life in a stunningly authentic and emotionally robust portrait. His first film in 10 years reminds us what made him a compelling filmmaker: his passionate touch, his ability to channel emotion through the lens, his eye for the beautiful as well as the barbaric. Amidst the loss of life there grows a flower. Doss’ heroic actions deserve to be celebrated and it would be something of a disservice not to show us precisely what kind of odds he was up against. What a powerful story.

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Recommendation: As both a tribute to a real war hero and a bloody depiction of war, Hacksaw Ridge manifests as one of the most punishing but ultimately rewarding film experiences of the year. The emotional and visual components match up favorably with Steven Spielberg’s seminal war film Saving Private Ryan, though I personally stop short of saying it tops that epic. I just have to recommend you bear down and watch this one. It’s an important film and a remarkable true story of courage and remaining true to one’s self.

Rated: R

Running Time: 131 mins.

Quoted: “Lord, help me get one more. One more.”

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