Extraction

Release: Friday, April 24, 2020 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Joe Russo 

Directed by: Sam Hargrave 

The more cynical takeaway here is that Extraction exists for no other purpose than to prove that the three — er, make it four — Marvel Cinematic Universe alums who have made it possible are capable of more hard-hitting, violent movies. The marketing seemed pretty simple: Here’s another Avenger unleashed in an R-rated movie. Chris Evans got The Red Sea Diving Resort; Chris Hemsworth gets Extraction. (On that note, who the heck is Robert Downey Jr.’s agent?)

As if to one-up his own brooding performances in Thor: The Dark World and the opening stanza of Avengers: Endgame, the hulking Australian goes from being superheroic to super-sullen in this straightforward and straight-up bloody action thriller directed by stunt coordinator extraordinaire Sam Hargrave. In his directorial début he is joined by his buddies Joe and Anthony Russo — the fraternal duo behind some of Marvel’s biggest chapters. The former writes the script and serves as a producer alongside his brother. That pedigree of talent in front of and behind the camera ensured Extraction won the popularity contest with housebound audiences earlier this year, becoming the most-streamed title in Netflix’s catalogue of originals.*

To be more charitable — and more honest — Extraction is a throwback to gritty, ultra-masculine action cinema of the past, a one-note drama that knows its boundaries and doesn’t try to cross them. It isn’t gunning for any awards, but if you’re looking for a way to get your adrenaline pumping, this fast-paced adventure of bone-crunching action should do the trick. Based on the graphic novel Ciudad, the movie pits Hemsworth’s black ops mercenary Tyler Rake against multiple waves of bad guys crawling the cramped streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh. His mission is to rescue Ovi (Rudhraksh Jaiswal), the teenaged son of a drug lord, from a rivaling kingpin. He’s reluctantly sent in by fellow merc Nik Khan (Golshifteh Farahani), along with a support team who are here mostly to help fill the movie’s dead body quota.

What should have been a simple in-and-out turns into basically a suicide mission as the sadistic and well-connected Amir Asif (Priyanshu Painyuli) gets wind of the rescue attempt and puts the city on lockdown, sending reinforcements to all possible exit points. Meanwhile, Ovi’s guardian Saju Rav (Randeep Hooda) is highly motivated to retrieve the boy himself, with his family being threatened by an incarcerated Ovi Sr. Prison walls don’t make this man any less dangerous when there is this much pride at stake. Saju puts his years as a special forces op to good use, muscling through any and all objects standing in his path and leading us to the expected confrontation with Mr. Rake himself.

The cat-and-mouse game that ensues is more technically impressive than it is emotionally involving. While we get some insight into what drives this brooding badass into such dangerous situations, it’s really just window dressing to the carnage that unfolds in the present tense. If you squint you can see a bond beginning to form between Rake and the blank canvas of a schoolboy in his ward (in fairness to the young actor, he just isn’t given enough to do other than look scared). Joe Russo squeezes the orange hard, until some droplets of juicy redemption emerge finally for Rake, a man clearly being consumed inside by pain from a traumatic past.

The editing team paces the story pretty breathlessly, leaving you with as little time to think as its characters, which can only be a good thing when you have a protagonist this immune to dying. The marquee scene, a protracted mid-movie battle between Hemsworth and Hooda that incorporates car chases, falls from rooftops and hand-to-hand combat, proves why Hargrave is one of the best in the business when it comes to building up an action sequence that remains not just white-knuckle but also coherent. The final showdown on a bridge is also quite memorable, with bullets flying everywhere and vehicles set ablaze as all characters converge on the targets.

Unfortunately it is the epilogue that proves to be the movie’s biggest misstep. For the most part Hargrave assembles a lean, mean and self-contained story but when it comes to finishing things off, he becomes weirdly non-committal. As it turns out, he isn’t nearly as ruthless as his leading man. Still though, lack of character development and emotional depth notwithstanding, Extraction gets the job done in brutal and stylish fashion.

* the game has changed. Netflix’s metric now considers two minutes sufficient time for a person to have ‘viewed’ something. it used to be you had to watch something like 75% of a movie or a single episode for that to be counted as a view. 

Drowning in despair

Recommendation: I haven’t mentioned anything in my review about Extraction‘s reliance upon the white savior trope, and that’s because I’m not entirely sure it’s problematic. This movie has some undeniably ugly moments (child soldiers, for example) and yes, it is clearly a vehicle for star Chris Hemsworth, but in my view it is Randeep Hooda’s complicated family man who is the movie’s most interesting character. Story-wise and thematically this is pretty basic stuff but it certainly succeeds in its capacity as an ultra-masculine action thriller.  

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

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

Photo credits: Netflix

Month in Review: October ’18

To encourage a bit more variety in my blogging posts and to help distance this site from the one of old, I’m installing this monthly post where I summarize the previous month’s activity in a wraparound that will hopefully give people the chance to go back and find stuff they might have missed, as well as keep them apprised of any changes or news that happened that month.

October is a tough month to survive if you aren’t as into horror as others are, and if you don’t necessarily make your blogging bread-and-butter out of talking about scary movies. As long time readers of this award-winning blog (I’m not bullshitting you — I got a Liebster Award, ya’ll!) are aware, I have slowly but surely been gaining an appreciation for the genre over these years, in part thanks to a number of great sources whose awareness of what’s actually out there has inspired me to do some digging myself. In the years since doing this, my definition of horror and what’s “scary” has evolved, and I really like that.

With that said, I don’t think I produced one single horror review this past month. It wasn’t like I planned this, or that I had no options (the resurrection of Michael Myers and Laurie Strode in David Gordon Green’s Halloween: The Great Retcon, or can I interest you in a new Jeremy Saulnier picture in Hold the Dark?) Man, I really messed this thing up this month, didn’t I? I think the scariest thing that happened was the backlash following Damien Chazelle’s First Man, a movie about astronaut Neil Armstrong and his successful Moon landing. The number of ignorant comments I read regarding that movie was truly frightening. It’s one thing to not like the way the film was made — in fact that’s understandable — but it’s quite another to dismiss First Man as a work of fiction or the omission of the flag planting symbolic of “typically Hollywood revisionist history.”

With that off my chest, it’s time now to take a look back on what films I did review this month on Thomas J (plus two bonus blurbs on things I ran out of time on). Let’s do it!

Beer of the Month: 21st Amendment’s Back in Black IPA


New Posts

New Releases: A Star is Born (2018); First Man; mid90s


Another Double-Header 

Bad Times at the El Royale · October 12, 2018 · Directed by Drew Goddard · Boasting a talented and inspired ensemble cast and an atmosphere rich in foreboding, Drew Goddard’s Agatha Christie throwback mystery-thriller, set at the titular El Royale — a once-happenin’ travel destination set on the California/Nevada border now falling to the wayside — follows multiple perspectives as a group of guests become caught up in a fight for survival as slowly but surely each one’s true identity becomes revealed. A film packed with fun performances, including Jeff Bridges as Father Flynn, Jon Hamm as a “vacuum cleaner salesman” and Chris Hemsworth as a cult leader with a Thor-like physique (but far less in the way of David Koresh-like credibility), Bad Times‘ true gem lies in Cynthia Erivo’s Darlene Sweet. I flat-out loved that character. One of my favorites of the year, in fact. The central mystery keeps you engaged, even if you might sniff out who the survivors will be sooner than Goddard might have intended. (3.5/5)

The Sisters Brothers · October 19, 2018 · Directed by Jacques Audiard · A modern western that fails to draw you in in the way it really could have, the star-driven The Sisters Brothers is still worthy of your time. But with great star power comes great responsibility. With characters brought to life by the likes of John C. Reilly (as the elder Eli Sister), Joaquin Phoenix (as gin-soaked Charlie Sister), Jake Gyllenhaal (as John Morris) and Riz Ahmed (as gold prospector Hermann Kermit Warm — what a freakin’ name!), it’s a frustration that the film never builds enough energy and intrigue around the obviously committed performances. The story emphasizes character over traditional western shoot-’em-up action. Over the course of two REALLY LONG hours, the ideological divide between its leads takes center stage, with one Sister wanting out while the other brother is resolutely all about this life. Survival is dealt with in a more grisly manner than what many might expect, particularly of a movie that also bills itself as a comedy. Aside from a compellingly subversive ending, I think my biggest takeaway from The Sisters Brothers is that there is no substitute for good, honest, hard labor when it comes to looking for gold during the height of the Gold Rush. Chemistry has never seemed so . . . gross. (3/5) 


ANYWAY. How was your Halloween? 

Thor: Ragnarok

Release: Friday, November 3, 2017

→Theater

Written by: Eric Pearson; Craig Kyle; Christopher L. Yost

Directed by: Taika Waititi

Save yourself a pat on the back for me, Marvel. The Taika Waititi experiment has paid off and now you’ve got a great big success on your hands. Thor: Ragnarok isn’t a revelation but it is a very entertaining package, and that largely comes down to the studio investing in yet another unlikely candidate for the job. The New Zealand-born comedian-turned-director has the global audience in his hands as he sets about parodying the realm of fancily-clad, musclebound superheroes into oblivion.

Rarely do you find a franchise hitting a high note late into their run, yet here we are three films in and Ragnarok is unequivocally one of those highs. Thor (2011) had its moments but too often it took pleasure in slamming you in the gut with corny dialogue and half-hearted attempts at levity. The Dark World in 2014 overcompensated by going really heavy and really broody. In the end it was even sillier than its predecessor. Cut to another eight films deeper into the superstructure of the MCU and we finally get a Thor film that beats everyone to the punch by being the first to make fun of itself. It’s still not quite a balanced effort but Thor: Ragnarok is a much better film for using humor as its primary weapon.

From the opening scene it’s apparent things are going to work a little differently under the Kiwi’s creative leadership. In his fifth reprisal of the legendary son of Odin, Chris Hemsworth is able to find the funny in everything, including being hogtied upside-down and held captive at the hands of the fire demon Surtur on a remote planet. (Well, almost everything. He doesn’t seem to enjoy being tasered, being bound to a chair or losing his beloved Mjölnir.) It’s been two years since we’ve last seen Thor, when the Republic of Sokovia was lifted dramatically skyward during another marquee Avengers moment. He’s been scouring the Nine Realms for the remaining Infinity Stones ever since but we find him now caught in a bind.

Spewing exposition for the benefit of the audience is never a glamorous job, so Waititi figures why not let it fall to an anthropomorphic molten rock thingy. Surtur informs us that ‘Ragnarök’ — the prophesied destruction of Thor’s home world — is nigh, and that essentially nothing can stop it. Even though he Houdini’s his way out of this initial hang-up, Thor is sent on a collision course with an even bigger problem: dealing with his incredibly dysfunctional family. In tracking down Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins), who is in failing health and has exiled himself from Asgard, Thor, along with half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), learn about the sister they never knew they had in Hela (Academy Award-winner Cate Blanchett) as well as her imminent return to Asgard.

And it is imminent. Hopkins has barely finished his monologue before we get our first glimpse of a goddess scorned. Blanchett, resembling at the very least in her eye shadow an evil version of Canadian pop singer Avril Lavigne, comes storming on to the scene, a wicked grin transforming her naturally pretty visage. The anticipation of her return proves to be far more interesting than the return itself however, as not even Ragnarok can stem the tide of Marvel’s history of disappointing villains (though the irony of this franchise spawning arguably the entire MCU’s best baddie is never lost). Spouting the platitudes of power-hungry deities isn’t the actor’s forte, yet Blanchett is such a pro she hides her inexperience well, clearly relishing the opportunity to do something a little different. If only the writing around her character aspired to do something different as well.

The major beats of the story ping-pong us back and forth between two alien worlds, the Eden-above-Eden that is Asgard, and a garbage planet called Sakaar, a wild land that feels like an extension of a music video for Empire of the Sun. There we are walking not on a dream, but amongst the brokenness of dreams, of spirits. It’s a planet literally comprised of junk and over which Jeff Goldblum‘s Grandmaster deludedly reigns. As the resident Crazy, the Grandmaster likes to put on gladiatorial battles for his scavenging underlings to drool over. (Cue Thor’s involvement and, so as to emphasize the film’s newfound identity, his new haircut.)

Contrived writing and trailer-provided spoilers aside, this is an important detour as it introduces a pair of fringe players who end up vying for MVP of the movie. And when Waititi prioritizes entertainment over logic at almost every turn he could always use more hands on deck. In the arena we meet Korg, a warrior made out of rocks and brought to life by Waititi himself in a motion capture performance. He’s a gentle giant whose voice is guaranteed to throw you for a loop. Then there’s Tessa Thompson’s hard-drinking bounty hunter, who at the behest of the screenwriters consistently rejects Thor’s pleas for help. The Valkyrie brings a beguiling new attitude that makes her eventual turnaround not only convincing but emotionally satisfying. She needs a movie of her own.

Thor: Ragnarok is a spirited good time, and it is surely an impressive feat for a director who considers himself decidedly more indie. The guys over at Industrial Light and Magic contribute an appropriate sense of scale and the rich textures needed to make these alien environments feel lived-in. The world-building is beyond reproach, but not even Waititi’s brand of comedy is enough to cover up all the existent flaws in the design, the likes of which seem to accrue rapidly along a common fault. The tonal shift is so jarring between the events taking place on poor old vulnerable Ass-guard and those on Sakaar that the film could be clinically diagnosed as bipolar. One part of the film is unapologetically fun, the other — Hela’s brave new world — feels like Game of Thrones. Enormous man-eating wolves only solidify that impression.

It’s ironic that the third Thor film suffers from precisely the opposite problem its predecessors had. It seems almost unfair or overly harsh to criticize the new one for correcting and then overcorrecting, but the scales are nevertheless still unbalanced. The comedy is too varied for Ragnarok to be dismissed as purely asinine — you’ll find elements of slapstick coexisting with wry observational humor, and then there’s always the familiar Marvel formula for giving us a sense of power dynamics (the Hulk smash is once again invoked, and we all know that’s not something Waititi invented). Indeed, there’s much to celebrate with this movie, and while there’s nearly as much to criticize, I’d call this progress. Significant progress at that.

Recommendation: Colorful, energetic, popcorn-destroying fun. The continued adventures of Thor are given a new lease on life with the Johnny-come-lately director who seems to take advantage of the timing of his arrival. When in full comedy mode, Thor: Ragnarok is at its best but as with all of these movies, I’m not the expert. I wonder how more dedicated fans in the long run come to view movies like this, like Shane Black’s Iron Man 3. Will these movies be remembered for the history they helped shape or what they had to sacrifice in order to make room for more laughs? 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 130 mins. 

Something kinda neat: Thor’s “friend from work” line about the Hulk was suggested to Chris Hemsworth by a Make-A-Wish child who paid a visit to the set on the day the scene was filmed.

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

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

Ghostbusters

Dont answer the call man

Release: Friday, July 15, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Paul Feig; Katie Dippold

Directed by: Paul Feig

It’s fun, and perhaps more than anything inspiring, watching a foursome of funny women transforming and transcending in what was supposed to be a god-awful Ghostbusters reboot. Yeah, I said it — I enjoyed the new movie. Bring it on, man. I ain’t afraid of no haters.

Before things get out of hand I have to say Paul Feig is no Ivan Reitman. And as fun as this truly becomes, the diaspora of knee-slappers and laugh-out-loud one-liners are still no match for the collective comedic genius that is Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd. Comparing the two — and I’m going to have to try hard to avoid an overdose of comparisons in this review — is like comparing . . . well, I just don’t want to do it. We are living in a completely different era. An era, mind you, that’s without Harold Ramis. We have lost our beloved Egon. But his spirit can live on. I’m not naming names but . . . Kristen Wiig. Damn she’s brilliant.

The set-up is familiar but far from derivative. Wiig plays Columbia University lecturer Erin Gilbert. Her past comes back to literally haunt her as she sees that her former paranormal research partner Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) has made available for purchase online a book the two worked on years ago that posited the existence of ghosts in a world parallel to our own. Seeing this as a potential road block to her success in academia, Erin confronts Abby and asks her to take the book off the web. That’s when she makes the deal to join Abby and her eccentric engineering pal Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon — remember that name) on a quick adventure to see if their life’s work is legitimate or not. In exchange, Abby will honor her request to stop publicizing said book, as much as that may hurt Abby on a personal level.

They visit an old, haunted mansion that still offers guided tours, as one of their tour guides (the perpetually creepy Zach Woods) claims he saw something spooky. There they encounter a ghost, confirming that their life’s work is indeed legitimate. Abby’s psyched, Jillian goes berserk and Erin . . . well, she just gets covered in ghost vomit. A recurring theme, we’ll come to find. The team starts to take shape and quickly. Perhaps too quickly, but delaying any further isn’t an option for a movie not planning on breaching the two-hour mark. Now they need a work space. They can only afford the upstairs loft above a crummy Chinese restaurant, one that seemingly can’t grasp the concept of properly portioned wonton soup. The trio take on the services of Chris Hemsworth‘s Kevin, nothing more than a good-looking but incredibly dumb blonde. (We’ll get into the reversal of sexist stereotypes in a bit, because it’s better that I keep you in suspense.)

Meanwhile a lonely MTA worker, Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), witnesses an isolated ghost-related incident on the subway line and reports it to the fledgling “Department of the Metaphysical Examination.” Having extensive knowledge of the city she makes a pitch for joining them in their efforts. She can even provide transportation. They end up creating what amounts to a nuclear reactor mounted atop a hearse that may or may not still have bodies in the back. It even comes complete with a “very un-American siren.”

Life in the ghost busting world is pretty interesting. Friendship dynamics are as well-defined as they are compelling: whether it’s the stunted growth in both the personal and professional relationship between Erin and Abby, the general insanity of Jillian or Patty’s confidence, there is a lot to latch onto here. Feig manages to create an environment in which his actors can really flourish. Strong positive vibes emanate. The camaraderie between the four is contagious, even if it waltzes often into goofy territory. McCarthy dials down her sass to affect a genuine personality we can actually cozy up to, necessarily establishing this as her best work to date. Wiig continues to perfect the deadpan. McKinnon is just plain fun. Jones has less work to shoulder but she’s nowhere near as boisterous and overbearing as her SNL résumé would have you believe.

I wish Ghostbusters handled its themes more delicately though. I guess subtlety goes out the window when you’re dealing with hundred-foot tall Stay Puft Marshmallow Men and thousands of other spirits. The casting of an all-female team should be enough to suggest it is doing something about the glaring gender inequality in modern cinema, but apparently it’s not for Feig. He, along with MADtv writer Katie Dippold concoct a fairly thinly veiled critique of the negative reaction to their own film by frequently drawing attention to the Youtube comments section on videos the ghost busting ladies have posted, in an effort to spread awareness of a potentially apocalyptic threat in New York at the hands of freak/genius Rowan North (Neil Casey).

Couple that with the fact that every significant male character is either a villain (the aforementioned Rowan is one particularly weak link) or just an idiot (the annoyance Hemsworth creates is absolutely intentional which in and of itself is annoying) and you have the recipe for a million “I told you so”‘s from anyone who has been against such a film in principal from the moment it was announced.

No, Ghostbusters is best when it’s focused on the friendships (the ghosts are pretty cool but largely forgettable, as they were in the first). McCarthy and Wiig are at the center of what eventuates as a heartwarming tale of loyalty and not giving up on lifelong goals. Their comedic repartee is energetic and surprisingly wholesome, even if the comedy they’re working with is largely inconsistent. It is true that what passes as comedy today barely passes as watchable, never mind as the stuff that elicits the kind of belly laughs the originators could. But there is so little of that limp in Ghostbusters. Instead it kind of struggles to keep the greatness going, occasionally succumbing to a lesser script and less experienced principals. That said, I wasn’t prepared to endure the hardest laugh I have had in a theater all year. Wait for that metal concert to go down. Wait for that scream. Oh my god, that scream.

Look, trying to convince anyone who has taken it upon themselves to let Akroyd and Murray personally know they suck just for endorsing such a thing, well that’s just a fruitless endeavor. To those people I’m sure I’ve betrayed something or other. I am not even going to address those who think bringing women in to do what was once done by four men is a mistake (although it is ironic that the film couldn’t dispense with sexism entirely). The original was apparently the paragon of excellence and therefore is lesser just because 2016 happened. A reboot just seems sexy and trendy and the cool thing to do, and maybe it is, but there’s one thing I know for sure: Ghostbusters is not another regurgitated, passionless affair. It likely will never garner the nostalgia the 1984 film did, but it is much farther from being the movie that an alarming number of fanboys seem to assume it is.

Ghostbusters gif

Recommendation: Massively negative hype is unfortunately going to impact box office intake, but my advice is this: don’t skip out on the movie based on hear-say and an admittedly poor trailer. It would be a shame to think millions missing out on this just because of the power social media gives people. Ghostbusters is well-acted, funny — unfortunately not consistently but the good bits hit hard — and surprisingly moving when all is said and done. I really had a good time and in the interest of full disclosure I wasn’t expecting to at all. Not because of the cast. But because most modern comedic adventures turn out to be a bust. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “It smells like roasted bologna and regrets down here . . .”

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

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

In the Heart of the Sea

big fish

Release: Friday, December 11, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Charles Leavitt; Rick Jaffa; Amanda Silver

Directed by: Ron Howard

From the infamously dangerous Nürburgring and into the heart of the sea Ron Howard has steered his cameras in an altogether new direction, facing the unenviable task of crafting a cinematic event based around the circumstances that inspired 19th Century writer Herman Melville’s most famous fiction.

Less an adherence to the motifs found in ‘Moby Dick’ and more a voyage of its own epic proportions, In the Heart of the Sea finds Howard massaging a much darker story involving the brave (or stubborn) seafaring captain, first mate and crew of the Essex who were destined for destruction when they set out in search of another payday in the form of whale oil, only to be thwarted by a deep sea-dwelling monster. It’s a film in which adjusted expectations will likely accommodate a more enjoyable experience, for this is more blockbuster than serious drama; more Greatest Hits than a standalone album.

In 1820 Chris Hemsworth’s Owen Chase, an experienced whaler and affable, capable man, feels like he’s earned the right to become Captain of the Essex, but thanks to bureaucracy and George Pollard (Benjamin Walker)’s status as heir apparent to the family legacy, he’s relegated once more to First Mate despite being promised otherwise. So the journey starts off with a barely disguised undercurrent of tension and gradually destabilizes as what was already going to be a protracted trip eventuates into more than a year at sea, as the inexperienced Captain Pollard fails to find the goods. At the time, small communities like Nantucket were dependent upon whale oil for lighting and energy and returning to shore empty-handed was not an option.

After months scouring the Atlantic to little avail, Pollard decides to explore the Pacific in an attempt to change their fortunes. While resupplying in Ecuador, they learn of an undisturbed region of whales that apparently harbors a particularly hostile and large white whale. The crew of the Essex dismiss the story as a myth only later to discover both parts of the story to be true. And they are of course attacked, marooned on a remote island and finally left floating for days on end with scant water or food supplies. It gets to a point where the remaining survivors must resort to cannibalism. Indeed, when the going gets tough, the tough get going.

And when the going does get tough, Howard’s gritty epic truly gets going. Sea is less about showmanship — interpret that as either a reflection of character or performances from a recognizable cast — as it is about establishing atmosphere. Wisely he provides some semblance of humanity before rendering the participants steadily maddening creatures. The squabbles between Chase and Captain Pollard couldn’t seem more trivial after the whale attacks. There’s a tremendous sense of loss, of unrelenting despair in this nautical epic, qualities almost antithetical of Howard’s typically uplifting, inspirational fare. Morbidity and suffering suits him though.

A staunch believer in the power of storytelling, Howard this time surprisingly foregoes establishing memorable characters — don’t expect any Niki Lauda‘s or John Nash‘s here — in order to make room for a familiar but powerful framing device involving Brendan Gleeson’s aged Tom Nickerson, the last living survivor of that crew. In modern-day (well, Nantucket 30 years later), a thoroughly depressed and alcohol-dependent Tom reluctantly relays the tragedy to a curious Melville (Ben Whishaw) who in turn wants to recount the saga in his writing for to make a name for himself.

Regrettably, the sporadic jumps back to present-day tend to rudely interrupt our seafarers’ plight. Sea has a difficult time sustaining momentum and if it is to aspire to great heights as a blockbuster, as it clearly wishes with a mammal of this magnitude so convincingly rendered, it needs to more judiciously use these transitions. Points also deducted for the crowbarring in of a parallel to man’s contemporary dependence on land-locked crude oil. The topic certainly seems relevant, but the film almost certainly would have been better off without the mention.

Despite borrowing the narrative backbone of the 2000 Nathaniel Philbrick novel ‘In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex,’ this is a Ron Howard picture through-and-through. It boasts breathtaking cinematography, wherein you’ll find the extent of its romantic tinges. There’s little room for romance in a story this dark, save for the way this beautiful whaling vessel is captured by two-time collaborator Anthony Dod Mantle. It’s also a passionately crafted and seriously considered production that may not always fire on all cylinders as other entries have in Howard’s rich back catalog, yet there’s something undeniably classic about its mythical qualities.

Screen Shot 2015-12-13 at 4.07.05 AM

Recommendation: Powerful, moving, handsomely crafted epic with tremendous special effects to boot, In the Heart of the Sea is destined to satisfy more devout Ron Howard fans. It might be a more flawed creation than say Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind or last year’s Rush, but if we’re making those comparisons we’re only setting ourselves up for disappointment in the same way this ill-fated crew set themselves up for disappointment going for 2,000 barrels of whale oil.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “They looked at us like we were aberrations. Phantoms.”

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 

Marvel’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron

the-avengers-age-of-ultron-366531l

Release: Friday, May 1, 2015

[RPX Theater]

Written by: Joss Whedon

Directed by: Joss Whedon

In the chaotic and climactic final twenty minutes a wistfulness arose within me, and though I didn’t let it fully disengage me from one of the year’s most ambitious CGI spectacles I was annoyed I let it happen. I knew it was going to, though. That feeling that, after all of this battling against the hype machine, this was it. This was all it could have been.

And of course it was; it makes sense. Marvel’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron may be the much-anticipated follow-up to that most grandiose uniting of superheroes from far-flung corners of the globe but in the end it is still just a movie. At two hours and twenty minutes it’s a lot of movie but even that kind of length ends up shortchanging those who have built this up in their heads as some kind of singular event. I honestly put the blame on Joss Whedon, though. Maybe if he hadn’t made Marvel’s The Avengers such a spectacular escape little old film fans like me wouldn’t have unfairly begun wielding our hopes and expectations like a shield of vibranium against which the man would have little hope of defending himself.

The one thing he won’t have to hope for is a solid box office presence, though. That’s perhaps the only thing that’s guaranteed about his new film.

james-spader-as-ultron

AGE OF JAMES SPADER

Age of Ultron arrives at a time when superhero movies have . . . okay, forget that. Instead: yay, summer! Rather than detangling the network of superhero film reel that’s enabled this one to happen, I think it’s best to cut to the chase and talk all things artificially intelligent and Hydra-related. Whedon wastes no time in appealing to our appropriately elevated adrenaline levels by introducing the gang kicking ass and taking names in the remote European nation of Sokovia, the location of a Hydra outpost. Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) has gotten a hold of Loki’s scepter and is using it to experiment on humans. His most notable creations become Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor Johnson) and the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who take pleasure in being the collective thorn in the Avengers’ collective side.

Following their successful stand against some of Hydra’s henchmen, the Avengers return to headquarters and celebrate, but only briefly. Given Stark’s affinity for constantly tinkering with his creations he uses the A.I. he and Banner discover within the scepter to jumpstart his long-dormant and secretive Ultron project, a program he believes will be humanity’s best chance of living in a safer world.

Amidst one of the more memorable scenes — Thor ribbing his companions into trying to lift his hammer knowing full well none of them will succeed, only to be gobsmacked by Steve Rogers’ ability to actually influence it ever so subtly — a worst case scenario rears its ugly head as Ultron’s sentience rapidly exceeds Stark’s ability to control it. Ultron (voiced by James Spader) quickly deduces people are no good; that the only way Earth will be safe is to eradicate them. One thing I was impressed by was how my cynicism was put in perspective in the face of a vengeful, ten-foot tall robot with evil red eyes.

If there’s anything that bundles together Age of Ultron‘s dizzying number of thematic and physical ambitions it’s the notion that not everything created by a billionaire genius can be controlled. Not by him, and not even by Whedon. The arrival of a one-of-a-kind android in Spader, whose own image rather disappointingly supersedes that of his on-screen counterpart, heralds an age in which over-ambition, even born out of purely good intentions, very well might mean the downfall of everything. That’s obviously not going to be the case for the MCU. Still, this bloated sequel is not the joyride its predecessor was.

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SUPERHERO FATIGUE V. SUPERHERO INDIFFERENCE

In propelling the complex mythos and relationships that have endeared millions to this lone property into the future, Whedon has incidentally obligatorily spawned an environment in which everything is expected to get more and more extreme. Unfortunately that’s kind of an issue that can be traced back to the Avengers’ cinematic birth in 2012. How the Infinity War sequels are supposed to top this is anyone’s guess, but there is no doubt Marvel will demand it from the Russo brothers. I suspect we are yet to enter the darkest days facing our fearless heroes, and if this middle film is a barometer of anything, it’s solemnity.

But like Man of Steel and The Amazing Spider-man, just because the story takes a darker turn — these properties are, after all, reflecting a reality that seems to be growing ever more hostile — this doesn’t discount Age of Ultron‘s potential to be an enjoyable summer getaway. Rather, I have found it easy to forget about that potential, and much more challenging to be as enthusiastic as Whedon’s canvas continues spreading to include lesser-known players, heroes who are admittedly cleverly worked into the picture, but who don’t mean as much if you haven’t done your Avengers homework. (And I am referring to the comics.) There’s something about the hatred Ultron directs primarily towards Tony Stark and secondarily to the human population at large that screams ‘classic movie villainy,’ yet the same can’t be said about Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch’s decision to shift loyalties.

Perhaps my detachment from the Maximoff twins, in particular, stems from my failure to be entertained by Elizabeth Olsen trying on a Russian accent. Equally distracting is Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Beach Boys hairdo. These two needed their own cinematic introduction before showing up in ostensibly pivotal roles here. The Vision means little to me, although his . . . odd genetic make-up is something to behold. If this all sounds like a personal problem, that’s because it likely is. Whereas some are experiencing the inevitable ‘superhero fatigue,’ I find I may have accidentally banished myself to the realm of superhero indifference.

What Age of Ultron ultimately assembles (and stop me when this sounds familiar) is an overstuffed extravaganza that tries, mostly succeeding, to incorporate as much of the popular Marvel legacy as a single film can handle before breaking and before turning off as many of its several hundred million viewers as possible. It’s the epitome of blockbuster in a blockbuster age. It’s a mighty compromise between getting really technical and remaining lowest-common-denominator entertainment. I feel as unique as the Avengers are, they deserve something not quite as mundane.

At the same time, what else could I have expected out of a summer movie? While I don’t feel like my expectations turned on me as drastically as Stark’s program did him, like him I am reluctant to admit it was pretty much my fault. . .

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3-5Recommendation: Featuring Whedon’s trademark comic relief and ability to weave together multiple story lines, Marvel’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron unfortunately might signal what has been coming down the pipe for a long time. It’s a film of excess but also a film that minimizes enjoyment to pack in as much information and spectacle as possible. Diehards will no doubt lap this up. Anything less though, are sure to find things that could have been much better. A recommended watch in the large format, but unlike the first one I can’t say you need to see it twice in such a fashion. There is a mid-credits scene that you should stick around for.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 141 mins.

Quoted: “Everyone creates the thing they fear. Men of peace create engines of war. Avengers create invaders. Parents create children, that will supplant them.”

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

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

Blackhat

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Release: Friday, January 16, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Morgan Davis Foehl

Directed by: Michael Mann

Even with an hilariously miscast Chris Hemsworth, Blackhat is utterly forgettable.

Something that’s less forgettable is its horrendous opening weekend performance. Set against a budget of $70 million, Michael Mann’s cybercrime would-be-thriller brought in a grand total of $1.7 million in its debut, necessarily deeming Blackhat one of the biggest box office bombs in cinematic history given its wide release status.

At best, the pairing of a Hollywood hunk with a predominantly international cast is amusing if for the opportunity to count all the ways in which the film panders to a global audience. If that wasn’t enough, the lack of chemistry between the towering Brit and his computer hacking buddies — Leehom Wang’s Chen Dawai, and Wei Tang’s Chen Lien, who are brother and sister in the film — are the glitches that bring this story to its knees.

Mr. Mann captures some compelling action sequences but the stunt work goes to waste when we’re having trouble even believing the actors in roles that have them staring at computer screens for most of the time. Hemsworth plays Nick Hathaway, a computer hacker serving prison time because he’s a real bastard behind keyboard and mouse. His direct involvement isn’t made clear right away, but two major events occur at the film’s open that we’re meant to pay attention to (but can’t because they’re somewhat trivialized by a confusing series of shots detailing the inner workings of computers): a nuclear reactor in Hong Kong experiences a catastrophic coolant malfunction, while the Mercantile Trade Exchange based in Chicago gets hacked.

Whoever’s clever enough to hack these systems is going to have to answer for the damage, or so say some stern-looking Chinese government officials. They enlist the help of the FBI, in the form of Agent Carol (Viola Davis in an ironic performance; her voice is so monotonous she sounds more of a computer hacker than anyone else) in bringing those responsible to justice. At first, everyone believes these attacks to be the work of Thor. They may as well be. Hemsworth-as-hacker is about as out of place as his demigod was on Earth.

Hathaway’s asked to help solve the crimes together with Dawai and the FBI in tow, but his condition is that his prison sentence be commuted and that he gets to have the cute girl in the end.  Though he does not make the second request, you know this is happening regardless. And how. Talk about some majorly underdeveloped character arcs. The team are soon bouncing all over the globe in an effort to track down the cyber terrorists, who are now aiming to take out more nuclear reactors in order to flood an expansive tin mine in Jakarta, Indonesia.

The terrorists’ goals aren’t exactly revelatory but they work well enough to assume a threat. But in a movie like Blackhat, where more time is spent deciphering code and, apparently, studying the inner workings of hard drives, the real world doesn’t take center stage. Or when the threat finally becomes truly palpable, any audience member not in possession of a degree in computer science has long since tuned out. An error message reads on the front of their foreheads: this does not compute. This does not compel.

The director should be credited for his commitment to getting things right. The focus on the technical aspects, even if excruciatingly boring at times, is impressive. Unfortunately computer screens and staring at endless code sequences — unless we’re in the Matrix — do not on their own make for an interesting product. Then, when we get to the action sequences they’re too short-lived to make much of an impression. I suppose I could keep going here, but the review might get a little mean-spirited. I’m no blackhat critic, out for malicious intent. Out for revenge upon the world just because.

I just happen to think this movie vastly underserves both its audience — on either side of the Atlantic — and its particularly timely themes.

This. A whole lot of this.

This. A whole lot of this. Exciting, right?

1-5Recommendation: Blackhat has grand aspirations but it squanders them in a navel-gazing screenplay that is more interested in getting underneath the keyboard instead of into the minds of some high-profile cyber-terrorists. Fans of Chris Hemsworth will also be wise to stay clear of this one, this isn’t his best effort. I’m not even sure if I can recommend this one to the geekiest of computer geeks.

Rated: R

Running Time: 133 mins.

Quoted: “You are no longer in control. . .”

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 

Rush

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Release: Thursday, September 26, 2013

[Theater]

2013 finds Ron Howard operating well within his comfort zone again, returning to construct the definitive racing film.

A gripping, polished and thoughtfully-crafted drama piece, Rush delves into one remarkable season of racing which would ultimately define the careers of two top performers in Formula 1.

Howard and comedy, it would seem, mix about as well as bald race tires on wet pavement (in case that’s not clear, not well). The unnecessary detour we took in 2011 with The Dilemma serves as a painful reminder that sometimes straying from the course carries more risk than reward. But perhaps it’s the fact that the man is coming out of the shadows of that terribly confusing, un-funny film that makes this particular movie such a euphoric experience.

Rush compares the passions of two fierce competitors in 1970s Formula 1 racing. The film is equally an action/drama as much as it is a cleverly constructed biopic;  red-headed Richie Cunningham devotes as much time and material to the British playboy James Hunt (here portrayed by a thoroughly entertaining Chris Hemsworth) and the starkly more disciplined and straight-edged Austrian, Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), as he does to the critical developments on the racetracks.

I suppose seeing the film on an RPX screen helped bring the story to larger-than-life proportions. But that’s more of the icing on the cake, really. Peter Morgan, who also wrote Frost/Nixon and The Queen, is responsible for us feeling as though we have injected ourselves with extra adrenaline; that we’re trapped inside the claustrophobic cockpits of these exquisite automobiles. The only thing missing is the smell of burning motor oil, the cigars and the expensive perfumes and colognes. Morgan’s brilliant writing provides the sexy cast fully-realized characters that Hemsworth and Brühl simply run away with. (Or drive away with, if that metaphor suits you better.)

In the 70s, perhaps no rivalry was as bitter and as intense as the one dividing Hunt and Lauda, and Howard was keen to prioritize this aspect over the many other intricate details that comprise this project. One of the more compelling reasons to see this film is the simple fact that Howard does his damn research. Time and again he’s proven himself a director who pays attention to the details, no matter how technical the subject matter. In this case anyway, the material is as complicated as anything he’s ever dealt with (the adventures of Jim Lovell and company being a close second), yet you feel completely immersed in a world that is a near perfect-reflection of reality. Those who have come to love Howard’s style also trust in his earnestness.

Arguably the most rewarding aspect of Rush is the replication of the drivers’ less-than-pleasant relationship. Howard realizes its critical we know the personalities before we know their abilities; that we know what motivates each for taking the actions that they take. Consequently, when such decisions are made and certain events transpire, we care that much more for the people involved.

James Hunt bumps into the dark-haired, brusque Austrian racer one afternoon during a Formula 3 event — a lower-level form of the top-end race car circuit — and immediately there is tension between them. From the beginning its clear that Lauda is a technical perfectionist while Hunt enjoys bearing the fruits of his labor. . . and his good looks, of course. He’s the party animal; the one to be spraying a huge bottle of champagne after one race and puking minutes before the next. He’s the one to be bedding women like Olivia Wilde’s Suzy Miller. However, it is Lauda who is consistently described as “a genius in the car,” and given that Lauda’s generally unlikable persona made it more difficult (more like next to impossible) for him to get picked up by a team on his own merits, he has to struggle much harder to get in. Fortunately his efforts eventually pay off and in fact Ferrari signs him to their team.

Hunt’s lack of focus on (read: important) matters off the track results in his lack of sponsorship for the upcoming 1976 season, and though he jokes that all he needs on his car is something about cigarettes and condoms, its clear Hunt knows he’s in trouble.

Howard’s films typically are imbued with historically accuracy, and this one’s certainly no different. He accounts for every last detail surrounding racing as not only a sport, but a culture. A way of survival, even. From Lauda’s mechanical crew looking more than irritated having spent an entire night completely rebuilding his car to his exact specifications, to Hunt failing to attract new sponsors; from the quick, tight shots of the driver inside the car pushing down the pedals and switching gears, to slow-motion shots of the tires spinning in heavy downpours, Rush is almost poetic in its visual beauty and technical prowess. It could be Howard’s most immaculate project yet.

No moment in the film might exemplify the reality of driving for a living better than what happens to Niki Lauda one fateful day in Germany. Infamously referred to as ‘The Graveyard,’  the incredibly harrowing Nürburgring track is responsible for many, many serious accidents, a good number of which have been fatal. On the day of the race, the weather was anything but ideal. Heavy rains and low visibility prompted the incredibly intelligent Lauda to call a meeting in an attempt to boycott the race. Citing unreasonably high danger levels, Lauda was virtually alone in his position, as Hunt (at least in the film) points out that this would likely guarantee his (Lauda’s) win for the season, since cutting out the German Grand Prix would provide everyone else one less racing opportunity to catch up to him in the total points standings.

Later that day, Lauda’s car would be converted into a raging fireball after he overcorrects through a turn which inadvertently pierces the car’s fuel cell. The driver sat in a blistering inferno of over 800 degrees for about sixty seconds, causing irreparable damage to his face and lungs. He would spend roughly a month in the hospital recovering from horrific burns. Howard handles this pivotal moment with all the grace one could ever expect from him, and its really quite the gut-check time for both the other racers and us, the audience. It’s not an easy scene to witness.

This is a pivotal moment not only for the real-life champion, but relative to the film as well. Even if it’s a two-hour affair, this film simply flies by in no time at all. The film following the accident becomes twice as compelling, given the turn-around time for Lauda returning to the sport. Within four weeks, he’s back in the car, much to everyone’s amazement — particularly James Hunt’s. The film begs the question, what exactly separates the will to win versus the will to survive? In sports/careers in which the danger levels are directly proportional to the risks those individuals take, often the two overlap. Winning often means outlasting death. Losing means you played it too safe, or simply weren’t good/fast enough. And with Howard’s visionary style of directing, this is only part of the picture.

More than anything, Rush honors the legends that are Niki Lauda and James Hunt by shedding light on both their personal and professional lives (it doesn’t hurt either that the actors portraying them are strikingly similar in appearance) while never forcing the drama that came with the territory. Indeed, this develops as naturally as Howard’s confidence behind the camera has over a protracted career.

Formula 1 racing certainly approaches the top of the ladder in terms of the danger and the intrigue. Having experienced the United States Grand Prix in 2003 in Indianapolis, I can vouch for both, though fortunately me and my friends did not bear witness to anything near as dramatic as what happened to the formidable Austrian. It’s an interesting thought to entertain to consider what this film might have been like in the hands of anyone else other than those of Hollywood’s favorite ginger-haired director.

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4-0Recommendation: Race fans and Ron Howard devotees unite! Rush delivers upon almost everything promised by its enticing trailers, though it lacks a bit in some areas regarding the women who were behind the great drivers. Neither Wilde nor Alexandra Maria Lara (who plays Lauda’s wife, Marlene) are given much time to develop as characters at all. All the same, this is a wholly engaging experience that will have you whiteknuckled for most of its duration, and if you enjoy learning about the subject matter as much as you do witnessing it, this might just be the perfect movie for you. On that note, I fully expect this film to do far better in Europe than in America since the market for Formula 1 is nowhere near as demanding in the States unfortunately.

Rated: R

Running Time: 123 mins.

Quoted: “Don’t go to men who are willing to kill themselves driving in circles looking for normality.”

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