Angel Has Fallen

Release: Friday, August 23, 2019

→Netflix

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

Directed by: Ric Roman Waugh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He said I was a lion. Was he lyin’??

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

Rated: R

Running Time: 121 mins.

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

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

Photo credits: IMDb

Stan & Ollie

Release: Friday, December 28, 2018 (limited)

→Theater

Written by: Jeff Pope

Directed by: Jon S. Baird

Unlike the lengthy run the real-life subjects enjoyed in their careers, director Jon S. Baird’s passion project Stan & Ollie seems over before it has even begun. This isn’t me knocking the film for being slight, but because I enjoyed each precious minute like they were little fudge truffles maybe I just wish there were more of them, especially when Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are involved, and when they are this good together. They truly make this movie worth savoring.

Stan & Ollie is a lovingly crafted tribute to one of the most famous and beloved comedy acts of all time. It provides insight into both the creative genius behind the comedy and the friendship that endured behind the curtains. Coogan and Reilly play Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy respectively and I really don’t know who is better. Both. They’re both better. As history shows, the inimitable double act kept some pretty amazing company, yet even amidst their contemporaries — Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton to name two — they became slapstick icons unto themselves, appearing in over 100 silent and sound productions and with starring roles in more than 20 full-length features from the 1920s into the mid-40s.

They incidentally met as cast members on the set of The Lucky Dog (1921)though they wouldn’t officially be recognized as ‘Laurel and Hardy’ until years later, when they signed separate contracts with producer Hal Roach and shared the screen in the silent short Putting Pants on Philip (1927). Laurel, whose average build looked childlike standing next to the 6-foot, 300-plus-pound Hardy, more often than not played the hapless friend to Hardy’s pompous buffoon and a common theme of their act revolved around simple misunderstandings, demonstrated most often in the visual but occasionally expressed in cleverly conceived dialogue — their “Tell me that again” routine being a classic example.

Rather than turning his tribute into a filmic tick list of everything notable that happened, Baird concentrates on a period much later in their careers, focusing on their urgency to stay in business well after the height of their fame. The essence of their camaraderie — by extension their career — is distilled into a familiar road trip comedy. After getting down to literal business in a key opening scene, one that depicts an unhappy Stan Laurel refusing to renew his contract with Roach (Danny Huston), the story leaps forward sixteen years and follows the aging pair as they attempt to mount a big-screen comeback, a potential spoof of Robin Hood. To that end they embark on an exhausting tour of the United Kingdom in 1953, playing to diminishing crowds in obscure and forgotten music halls*, their close relationship and even their own health becoming strained in the process.

The effectiveness of Stan & Ollie very much mirrors that of the iconic two-man show. It just wouldn’t work without the right personnel, and with the Mancunian Coogan portraying the English Laurel, and Chicago-born Reilly pulling his pants up well past the point of where a traditional waistline goes to become the American Oliver “Babe” Hardy, Baird’s film is in some very capable hands — arguably the ideal hands. Reilly, perhaps more so than his co-star, has staked much of his reputation on playing the lovable oaf his character in this movie became typecast as. Look no further than the projects he teams with Will Ferrell on. Coogan, on the other hand, is a drier wit but no less entertaining. I’m thinking immediately of Hamlet 2.

As an homage to comedy, Stan & Ollie plays out more as a Greatest Hits performance rather than offering a deep dive into the treasure trove. That level of discrepancy allows for a more streamlined narrative, and will undoubtedly disappoint some viewers who might be expecting revisits to certain famous gags. However, we do get treated to some of the classics, like the bedside manners bit from County Hospital (1932), where Laurel, in paying a visit to his bedridden friend, creates quite the ruckus, eventually stringing the large man up over his own cot by his comically oversized leg cast. Baird uses this specific gag (admittedly only the first few minutes of it) to exemplify the depth of their creative and personal bond. When we see Laurel later attempt to rehearse the same sketch with a different actor — this is at a point where the guys are taking some time away from each other —  it just doesn’t feel the same. Laurel’s unease in fact leads to the cancelling of that night’s performance — much to the chagrin of their inept tour manager, Bernard Delfont (a perfectly smarmy Rufus Jones).

Jeff Pope, on balance a formula-friendly screenwriter, also gets inventive with the way he repurposes other bits — a highlight being an inversion of their famous piano-up-the-stairs scene, wherein the duo, having grown quite tired of lugging around their massive shipping container that is their traveling wardrobe, let go of it on a public stairwell and watch it slide down two flights. Yet the writing is rarely more moving than when things start to get a little tense between them. At a party thrown in their honor in London, attended by a number of Important People as well as their respective wives — the uppity but ultimately loving Ida (Nina Arianda) and the kindhearted but helium-voiced Lucille (Shirley Henderson) — past troubles resurface and it all leads to some gentle pushing and shoving, a dynamic misinterpreted by the public as a comedic act playing out in real life. It’s certainly a low point for them, yet the moment isn’t played so seriously it fails to inspire some laughs for us.

The tone of that scene is really Stan & Ollie in a nutshell. The water is never scalding hot nor freezing cold. This isn’t a movie of extremes. Instead it’s one made with reverence, arguably to a fault. It is deathly afraid of coughing in a quiet room. All warts have been removed with an airbrush. Still, I find it hard to resist the simplicity of the tale. Their comedy is brilliantly reimagined by two skilled, modern funny men. The characters are lovable and Coogan and Reilly are relishing the opportunity to pay homage. Even if the story never strays from formula and there is never a shred of doubt over where things are going, I couldn’t help but get lost in the moment.

* this is apparently more for the purposes of demonstration in the film, as in reality the pair even during this time were selling out big venues in major cities

Recommendation: Sweet, charming and very much to the point, Stan & Ollie is a must-see for longtime fans of one of the world’s most famous comedy double-acts, as well as a “You Really Should See” for anyone bemoaning the state of the modern comedy and searching for a re-set button. Also, the film is directed by the same guy who made Filth — if you haven’t seen that one, it’s a decidedly different kind of comedy starring James McAvoy as a brute of a police officer. The difference between the two films is night-and-day. Not sure if that is so much a recommendation as it is a bit of funny trivia. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 98 mins.

Quoted: [Hardy] “I’ll miss us when we’re gone.”

[Laurel] “So will you.”

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.thewrap.com

Wonder Woman

Release: Friday, June 2, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Allan Heinberg

Directed by: Patty Jenkins

Not even the comfort of Marvel Studios’ most luxurious pampering package can compare to the thrill of experiencing the struggling DC “extended universe” dropping an instant classic. Wonder Woman may be an event film but it’s also one of the most exciting new releases of the year and quite possibly the most compelling and emotionally resonant superhero film we’ve been delivered since The Dark Knight.

In the fifteen installments that the MCU has cranked out over the better part of a decade, not once has a standalone superheroine story made its way into the fold. Scarlett Johansson is one of the most recognizable names on the planet and yet the Black Widow project page on IMDb remains at the time of this writing a blank canvas. Perhaps it would be a stretch to give a full-length treatment to the likes of Scarlet Witch, but then no one expected Ant-Man to work. Besides, that time has come and gone anyway. And remaking Elektra is such an afterthought it seems not to exist.

Patty Jenkins, notable for directing a radically transformed Charlize Theron in 2003’s Monster — a film about a prostitute turned serial killer — becomes the first woman to be handed the reigns of a studio-produced superhero film, only the second ever to handle a budget of $100 million. In the process she’s become something of a savior for DC, delivering an immensely entertaining package that succeeds in its aspirations to become something more than spectacle. The real beauty of Wonder Woman is that Jenkins has as much of an interest in female empowerment as she does in providing an earnest exploration of our fallibilities as human beings, regardless of gender.

Wonder Woman is a surprisingly moving and heady origins story that tells of a beautiful and fiercely powerful Amazon warrior named Diana and of her loss of innocence. The Israeli beauty Gal Gadot fulfills the iconic role made famous in 1975 by Lynda Carter, sculpting not out of clay but rather an obvious and deep belief in the character’s sense of morality a performance that stands tall amongst the genre’s finest. Her saga is constructed in a flashback, triggered when Diana, working in the present day as a curator for the Louvre’s Department of Antiquities, receives a photographic plate from Wayne Enterprises which causes her to reflect upon her past.

The trip down memory lane takes us all the way back to the secluded isle of Themyscira, a paradise deliberately obscured from our world and home to the Amazons, a tribe of female warriors created by the gods of Mount Olympus and sworn to protect humanity against the wrath of Ares, god of war. The opening sequence pulls us into a heaven on earth resembling an ancient Greco-Roman utopia, one populated entirely by women. It is here where we first meet a young and wide-eyed Diana (Lilly Aspel) who is hungry to start her training to become among the elite fighters of her tribe. But her mother, the intensely protective Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), won’t allow her daughter to throw herself headlong into a world which she can’t possibly understand, much less control.

Naturally, Diana begins training in secret with her Aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) — widely regarded as the fiercest amongst all the Amazons. Refreshingly, the consequences of Diana’s disobedience don’t render her a prisoner in her own bedroom or with a silly slap on the wrist. They’re far more devastating. As a mother trying to do what’s best for her child Nielsen’s understated performance slowly slips into a pained resignation to what’s inevitable, eschewing the histrionics typically associated with parents reading their children the riot act. She’s well aware that experience is the best teacher; that perhaps the only way to learn that idealism is not a weapon is through trial by fire.

Diana’s journey of self-discovery takes us down the gauntlet of human cruelty and suffering as the environment flips from the ethereal to the brutally real. After American pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash-lands on the beach of Themyscira, bringing with him a fleet of pursuing German soldiers, Diana learns of a Great War engulfing the planet and that man’s suffering has reached a crescendo. Her altruism won’t allow her to sit idly by while innocent lives are lost, and so she decides to accompany the first and only male she has ever met to the “hideous” shores of England.

Along the way, Diana’s fish-out-of-water presence on the streets of London inspires a litany of keen yet broadly comical observations about human relationships, social norms and gender dynamics. Whereas the umpteenth male-centric origins story might flounder in its down moments, Wonder Woman is buoyed by an unusual perspective that keeps even its more pedestrian scenes interesting. Try, for example, taking an Amazon princess clothes shopping on Oxford Street. Or taking her out for ice cream. Or explaining to her why human beings are compelled to partner up. Meanwhile Gadot plays off her character’s immunity to such trivialities with deft precision. She emotes intensely when the scene calls for it, but what defines her performance more is a haunting sense of detachment and a loneliness that suggests immortality might be overrated.

The larger dramatic rhythms of Wonder Woman remain beholden to the Marvel blueprint, particularly with the gradual build-up of each battle sequence, but that’s not to say there aren’t surprises in store along the way. As per tradition, the central hero becomes surrounded with others who become personally invested in the good fight. The film commits to giving these fringe players both purpose and personality. There are bad guys as pawns, cluttering the path to legitimate evil that must be stopped at all costs. While the legitimate evil is still not something we can fear entirely naturally — believe it or not it’s harder to identify with the ideology of a raging god than, say, that of a German chemist — those pawns offer up some of the film’s most barbaric acts. Danny Huston’s insane General Ludendorff and Elena Anaya’s Dr. Maru (a.k.a. Doctor Poison) slightly overcook their parts, but they’re more compelling than the average, disposable baddie DC has offered so far.

The specifics of how it all plays out is where a review must end and the movie must take over, but suffice it to say the embattled heroine at the center of it all is more than enough to make up for any narrative shortcomings or predictability. Gal Gadot puts her best foot forward, rendering a performance that should go down in the history books as bold, brave, righteous. Wonder Woman is an epic tale fueled by female strength on both sides of the camera, two tidal forces both complementing and inspiring one another. It is, in short, a marvel to experience.

Recommendation: Sensational action sequences (the rising from the trenches in No Man’s Land is, quite frankly, a scene that no movie this year is going to be able to match) combine with heartfelt and inspired performances from the leading cast, with Chris Pine giving great support to his on-screen, equally “average-looking” co-star. Wonder Woman is not simply a DC film done right, it’s a superhero film executed to near perfection. Easily one of the best and most surprising movies of 2017. Guardians of the Galaxy, eat your freaking heart out! 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 141 mins.

Quoted: “You have been my greatest love. Today you are my greatest sorrow. Be careful, Diana. They do not deserve you.”

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 

Big Eyes

big-eyes-movie-poster

Release: Christmas Day 2014

[Theater]

Written by: Scott Alexander; Larry Karaszewski 

Directed by: Tim Burton

Tim Burton’s latest feels a little on the safe side. Why does that sound like I’m complaining? Shouldn’t the one thing that I ought to be doing right now be praising the director’s efforts for attempting to reach for a new muse? I guess more than anything I’m afraid for Waltz (or Amy Adams for that matter), as I don’t want either of them to end up floating down a chocolate river sometime soon in their careers. That’s a concern that’s as metaphorical as it is literal.

Because you never know with Burton. The next muse he might find could be a tap-dancing lizard. But there is one thing that’s clear about him this time: he’s willing to tone down the weird — or dispense with it completely — if it serves the subject properly. I have time for any artist who is willing to show humility, especially those this far into careers that have thus far worked even moderately well for them. In years past, there hasn’t seemed to have been a great deal of suspense when it came to anticipating (and later experiencing) one of his projects. You know what you are going to get with him, despite not knowing precisely what you are going to be shown on screen. Fine for everyone who has bought into his peculiar brand.

It’s different with Big Eyes. This doesn’t feel like that one thing that has captured another ‘it’ actor in a bubble; mostly that’s due to Christoph Waltz’s inability to be described as such. The man’s talent knows no bounds. Plus, he probably doesn’t want to hang out in a bubble anyway. Adams, the same. And it’s not like this story is so familiar that any sort of contemporary revisitation would become an exercise in embarrassingly transparent superfluity at the corporate level (Dracula: Untold, my big eyes are on you). In a way, Burton ought to be credited for taking something as endearing as ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and renovating it so much it’s no longer recognizable to even its most blue-faced fanatics.

Big Eyes concerns the personal and (lack of) professional life of one Margaret Keane (née Peggy Doris Hawkins), a woman who marries an artist she meets on a sun-spackled San Francisco boulevard because he is a bit of a charmer. He also can provide the financial support she and her daughter Jane both desperately need. That same husband would later claim credit for every piece she created while locked away in an attic outfitted as a dingy art studio. That’s no spoiler if you’re familiar with the Keane story. But I’ll keep my big mouth shut when it comes to revealing the manner in which this typically extravagant director goes about solving Margaret’s problems with her increasingly cartoonishly delusional husband. Suffice it to say this is Burton’s most accessible story in years, even if the subject matter might not appeal.

His film truly showcases some gorgeous artwork, and it is within these delicate frames — portraits, typically of children with gaping, vacant eyes standing against drab backgrounds — that some semblance of Burton’s infectious spirit pops out at the viewer. It’s restrained to the point of manifesting as another artist miming his style, but there’s no plagiarism going on here. On occasion Margaret’s dedication to maintaining the lie that she has helped build around herself, purely out of fear of crumbling the family’s financial empire that has gloriously arisen out of it, contributes to her hallucinations of people having actual big eyes. Once more Tim Burton reveals himself but for only brief interludes.

Big Eyes is something to admire, if not for the way it belies Burton’s fascination with the absurd, then for its distancing from it. It’s not the first time Burton has done something besides messing with skeleton-looking. . .thingies. . .for an inspiration but this is probably the furthest he’s been from actually thinking about them in sometime. There’s a profound respect he has for Margaret’s work here that shall not be denied. After all, in the 1990s he did commission the artist to paint a portrait of his then-girlfriend Lisa Marie. Hopefully that one hangs right beside an eerie oil-on-canvas of Willy Wonka grinning ear-to-ear, standing directly behind a wide-eyed Charlie Bucket.

shudders

amy-adams-christoph-waltz-and-krysten-ritter-in-big-eyes

3-0Recommendation: While Big Eyes isn’t the most inspired piece of film you’ll see this year (whoops this was supposed to be posted last year), this is a passionate love letter to the artistic style of Margaret Keane and her ‘big eyes’ portraits. The narrative brims with a potent fascination with the times, the people, and the art itself and it gives weight to both the artist and the husband behind her in equal measure. Waltz and Adams are both spectacular and their performances make this film memorable. Ultimately, this just doesn’t feel like a Tim Burton film, despite his obvious infatuation with Keane’s unique style.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “Good God, it’s a movement. . .”

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

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