John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum

Release: Friday, May 17, 2019

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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

Free Fire

Release: Friday, April 21, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Amy Jump; Ben Wheatley

Directed by: Ben Wheatley

Free Fire is 85 minutes of pure farce, and it’s kind of awesome. It’s also great news for those who have been wondering if they would ever see a pre-Madonna Guy Ritchie film again. Of course, this isn’t his film; he’s off doing that King Arthur flick with Jude Law or whatever. While it’s onwards and upwards for him, it’s hard not to look at something like Free Fire and wonder what might have been had he ever taken his particular brand of foul-mouthed farcical crime comedy to the American shore.

Cowritten by fellow Brit Ben Wheatley and his wife Amy Jump, Free Fire may not be as nuanced or as shamelessly vulgar as Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch but the schadenfreude is uncanny. As is the element of criminal ineptitude, here demonstrated by the majority as two gangs converge in an abandoned Boston warehouse to negotiate an illegal arms deal circa the late ’70s, only to have it go hopelessly (and hilariously) awry.

Brie Larson’s Justine and Armie Hammer’s mutton-chopped Ord are here to broker the exchange of M-16s (not AR-70s) between the IRA, led by Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), and a gun runner from South Africa named Vernon, played gleefully over-the-top by Sharlto Copley. Each party leader comes flanked by their associates, each of varying degrees of unscrupulous — the IRA have Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) and Stevo (Sam Riley), while Vernon’s muscle comes in the form of Martin (Babou Ceesay), Harry (Jack Reynor) and Gordon (Noah Taylor).

That’s a lot of bad dudes to keep track of, even in these limited confines. And Free Fire knows it, sparing 15 minutes in the beginning to clue you in just enough as to what actor is playing which character and dropping enough hints to lead you to assume nothing good can come of their being together in the same room for any amount of time. That’s so Ritchie.

But perhaps more importantly Wheatley establishes tonality in these early moments. A particularly stand-offish Frank is cheesed off that their back-up haven’t been punctual. Meanwhile Armie Hammer is a calming presence, seemingly insult-proof. It must be those ridiculous sideburns. This inauspicious start merely serves as the primer for the particularly intense acrimony shared between the slimy Stevo and the hippie-looking Harry. After the former’s indiscretion from the other night is revealed, what little professional courtesy there has been goes out the window and bullets start flying.

For a film whose plot is literally “get the money, get the guns and get out,” it’s impressive how Wheatley manufactures this much entertainment out of that which verges on tedium. Even as the movie comes literally to a crawl around the half-hour mark, it only gets more interesting. Performances are generally caustic — Larson is certainly an interesting choice here, and I’m not sure she works entirely — but they’re more effective physically as the entire ensemble, when not punching each other in the face with their hurtful words, spend their remaining time alive crawling around on the ground looking all shitty.

Imperfect by design, Free Fire offers dark escapist thrills aplenty and unapologetically.

Recommendation: Free Fire is quite different than Ben Wheatley’s previous offerings. It’s more accessible, to a certain extent. If you subscribe to the notion that Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels is awesome, this is  going to offer a lot more to enjoy. It’s undeniably slight and verges on being pointless, but who needs Shakespeare when you have Sharlto Copley shouting obscenities in a South African twang whilst on fire? 

Rated: R

Running Time: 85 mins.

Quoted: “Ugh, men.” 

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

War Dogs

'War Dogs' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 19, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Todd Phillips; Stephen Chin; Jason Smilovic

Directed by: Todd Phillips

The unbelievability factor really works in War Dogs‘ favor. It has given a director of outrageous comedies and indeterminate skill considerable leverage. It has given actors who like playing jackasses free range to be themselves and we would never know the difference because this true story is ridiculous to begin with. For blind devotees of Todd Phillips getting to know the actual truth is not as important as having an approximated version of it delivered in an amusing and crass way.

See, there’s one thing you kind of have to be in order to enjoy movies made by The Guy Who Brought You The Hangover: you have to be easy to please. You need to be unapologetically so. Take the guy who sat behind me and to my right, for example: this man(-child) laughed at damn well every line that came out of Jonah Hill’s mouth. To this satisfied customer, Phillips could not put a foot wrong. You need to be in that mindset if you are to get the intended amount of entertainment out of War Dogs, a dramatic comedy about how two dopes wind up landing a $300 million arms-dealing contract with the American government.

Despite much of the film being heavily fictionalized — the drive through The Triangle of Death and that pit-stop in Fallujah, yeah that never happened . . . although I bet that towel falling off that rich client’s ass did — this bumpy ride across foreign borders and into legal gray areas becomes a pretty good watch. I mean, a lot of this stuff really happened and you just can’t help but become curious as to how and when their ultimate downfall begins. Maybe it’s when they violated the American arms embargo against the Chinese by repackaging 100 million rounds of AK-47 ammunition — 42-year-old, substandard Chinese bullets to be more accurate. Maybe it’s the fact they forgot to get their boys paid for those efforts. Maybe it’s that both of them — high school buddies Efraim Diveroli (Hill) and David Packouz (Miles Teller) — really were just money-hungry douchebags utterly deserving of the stigma attached to their line of work.

Yes, I think it’s that last one, a sense of fatalism, that makes War Dogs entertaining on any level. The peace of mind knowing that no matter what sequences of success-building and montages of money-stockpiling are put in front of us these unlikable, completely out-of-their-depth numbskulls are going to get their comeuppance. Phillips works pretty hard at steering us in another direction though, and yet there is a surprising amount of fun to be had while it lasts. Of course, the whole thing’s rigged with many of his unimaginative storytelling methods, like the lazy voiceover provided by Teller and highly interruptive chaptered segments with cutesy titles like ‘God Bless Dick Cheney’s America’ and ‘That Sounds Illegal.’

His film is based upon a Rolling Stone article later expanded for a novel based on the rise to prominence of Efraim’s start-up company AEY, which would eventually become a major weapons supplier for the Department of Defense. Ultimately AEY totalled $200 million in contracts dealing in ammunition and assault rifles, amongst other weapons, and its demise inspired the government to reevaluate how they would secure contracts for the future. (In other words, gone were the days of hiring stoners to do the dirty work. Fucking pot heads, man.)

Hill and Teller provide an easy repartee that won’t be difficult to find in other, albeit more traditional, stoner comedies. Even if Hill is now typically a decade older in real life than the characters he chooses, he’s still believable as a 21-year-old arms-dealer (or is that gun-runner?) because . . . well, that freedom to believe whatever you want rule as I mentioned above. Believe all of it or believe none of it (both of which would be too extreme of a reaction in my opinion). Teller has gone back to playing less interesting individuals. All he gets to do is set a bad example for husbands and new fathers everywhere. He becomes the guy who has to explain his lies to his wife when the story needs some tension.

Very little about War Dogs‘ presentation or execution strikes you as incendiary but the source material is so outlandish you’d be forgiven for thinking Phillips wanted to make this just for the opportunity to blow certain aspects out of proportion. Casting regular collaborator Bradley Cooper as a shady intermediary named Henry Girard counts as proof. We didn’t need another famous face in the mix but seeing Cooper appear in a war film that’s very, very un-American Sniper is more than a little amusing. I cackled like a hyena* when he states that he’s “not a bad man, but sometimes [he] asks [him]self what a bad man would do.” I’m not sure if I was supposed to, but I did. I felt like my friend in the row behind me there. It took me until the very end of the film, but finally I felt my money had been decently spent.

I guess what I’m saying is that despite my problems with Phillips’ generic brand — though it must be said generic isn’t the same as incompetent, lest we forget things like Old School and yes, The Hangover, two genuinely great comedies — if you give him the right material to run with anything is possible. You might have a really good time if you can let go of preconceived notions for long enough.

Jonah Hill and Miles Teller in 'War Dogs'

Recommendation: Further confirmation of Todd Phillips’ unspectacular vision as a filmmaker, War Dogs pursues an outrageous true story with the kind of attitude and conviction fans of his should expect. It’s a passable comedy made more intriguing by the facts, and another good, if loud and obnoxious, performance from Jonah Hill. Not a film you probably want to spend money on if righteous anti-war sentiment is what you seek. And I suppose that’s one more credit to the film: a lack of political lean grounds it somewhat close to neutral. Like Hill’s Efraim says, think of it not as pro- (or anti-) war, but pro-money-making.

Rated: R

Running Time: 114 mins.

Quoted: “We drive through all triangles . . . including your mom’s.” 

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

Hardcore Henry

'Hardcore Henry' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 8, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Ilya Naishuller

Directed by: Ilya Naishuller

Hardcore Henry isn’t a film for the thinking man. That might even be obvious from the title, one that hints at a crude breed of action-thriller where people excessively swear, have lots of tattoos and women — and innocent bystanders — are as disposable as a Kodak camera. But if you’re low on adrenaline and need a quick, main-line shot of it, Hardcore Henry‘s got you covered.

It’s no secret that the film has been subjected to all sorts of scrutiny based on its gimmicky first-person point of view, the use of Go Pro cameras designed to truly integrate audiences into the story, giving the impression that we’re the ones performing all the ass-kickery. “We” wake up in a strange room with only a female doctor circling around us, inspecting the work that has been done to our body after a devastating encounter has literally cost us an arm and a leg.

Before too long a hostile group of rebels . . . or something . . . appears and kidnaps our doctor, who apparently is also our wife, Estelle (Haley Bennett). (Needless to say, it’ll be less of an uphill battle for the male percentage of the audience to feel as if they really are Henry.) Leading this group of assholes is Akan (played by Russian actor Danila Kozlovsky, who in a few fleeting moments bears a passing resemblance to Benedict Cumberbatch when he played WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange), a warlord with telekinetic powers and a serious vendetta against us.

The film unfolds episodically, with some scenes in serious need of another edit or two. But there’s an abundance of energy as we lurch from one grimy set piece to another, stumbling across a map ripped straight out of Call of Duty. It’s also a little 007 meets Halo, the latter especially given all that the opening escape sequence reveals about our location. That, and the sophisticated technology that has provided enemies with untold amounts of firepower and has given Henry/us a new lease on life. The gore owes much to infamous PC releases like Soldier of Fortune and Half Life, the likes of which incentivized players to become creative with their kills.

‘Videogame-esque’ is a particularly apt description given the way information is drip-fed to us at various checkpoints, while perpetual gunfire and flamethrower . . . um, fire . . . all but confirms that it’s pretty much us against the world. We start the film as a slab of meat, unable to speak, having to learn how to use newly acquired prosthetic limbs, and our memory’s been wiped clean. Sharlto Copley‘s Jimmy, a crippled soldier who has managed to find a way to transplant his conscience into other people, is there to guide us from point A to B. He’s our shield for half the film, able to escape close calls by re-spawning as a different person.

Copley’s chameleonic role is one of those things that will either make you scoff at all the ridiculousness ongoing or it will make you scoff at all the ridiculousness ongoing. There’s no way around it — Jimmy is an absurd loophole for director Ilya Naishuller to justify how Henry/we can make it all the way through this film without being vocal about things. Or, alternatively, without being killed prematurely and having a movie that lasts all of 20 minutes. On the positive side, Copley gives us someone with whom we can interact, and his spirited performance serves the film well.

There aren’t many other performances to speak of, but Kozlovsky stands out as a psychopath bent on the resurrection of a bioengineered army of soldiers whose emotional and psychological components have been stripped away. Call Akan the Final Boss. We realize it’s he with whom we’re going to have to do battle, but on several occasions Naishuller and some brilliant camerawork make a compelling argument as to why that won’t be easy.

Hardcore Henry has a habit of raising questions it has no intention of answering. It brutalizes you with an onslaught of fighting sequences that also beg the question as to how many Go Pros were used in the making of, and the acting isn’t stellar. The story’s nothing any experienced gamer hasn’t immersed themselves in already, nor something any ’80s action flick geek hasn’t seen before. But it is far more than a gimmick; this is a unique, absurd and chaotic world that makes suspension of disbelief easy and that’s a big plus in my book.

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 8.16.05 PM

Recommendation: The fast-and-frenetic action thrills of Hardcore Henry aren’t going to please all who flock to this unique cinematic presentation, but I’m happy to report that the camera set-up/POV filming isn’t the only selling point. The mystery we unfold as we go on is pretty compelling and the stunts occasionally give Mad Max‘s bloody confrontations a run for their money. I personally felt rewarded for the risk I took by seeing it.

Rated: R

Running Time: 96 mins.

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

Elvis & Nixon

'Elvis & Nixon' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 22, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Joey Sagal; Hanala Sagal; Cary Elwes

Directed by: Liza Johnson

Maybe it would’ve been too cheesy to use, but I was totally surprised when I never heard the line “Elvis has left the building.” But let’s get one thing straight: Elvis & Nixon is plenty cheesy, so it might have actually fit. I guess I have to move on now.

With two figures as iconic as The King and Tricky Dick filling the frame, Liza Johnson‘s decision to fashion a breezy, lightweight dramedy around them is, in hindsight, a sensible one. After all, she knows we’ve all come to listen in on a singular conversation, one behind closed doors. And since this isn’t Frost-Nixon she has no compunction to prop everything up on stilts for the stakes just aren’t as high here. There are barely any stakes at all, as a matter of fact. Despite that, Johnson’s aware of the remarkable position she’s in, able to use creative license as a way to get a foot inside the Oval Office on that day, December 21, 1970.

This infamous meeting took place prior to Nixon taping all of his conversations. No one knows what really happened. What was spoken about? What was Elvis trying to gain by meeting with the leader of the free world? How did he act? How awkward was Nixon? Most importantly, did Elvis thank him very much on the way out the door?

As the story goes, Elvis, disturbed by the deteriorating fabric of American society as drug abuse and stinging Vietnam protests swept across the nation, felt a responsibility to help in the fight against the counterculture. Call it counter-counterculture. He was into collecting police badges and was proud of the concealed firearms they enabled him to carry. All that Elvis lacked was a federal badge and the authority to actually go undercover as a “federal agent at large.” He felt his appearances in movies afforded him the art of disguise and he would be able to infiltrate schools without being recognized. So he sought approval first from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs and when that didn’t pan out he requested a meeting with the President.

Elvis & Nixon is a film that lives and dies on its casting, which is both the film’s strength and its weakness. Michael Shannon certainly looks the part, donning the mutton chops (I don’t care if they’re not real, they look pretty good on him), the gold-plated necklace and rings. He’s got his collar riding high around his neck, and the ladies come swooning, flocking into whatever room he’s in just for a visual confirmation that “it’s him.” As to the Prez — fans of House of Cards are going to have to dial back their expectations of Kevin Spacey’s cinematic politician. Even while embracing Nixon’s relatively off-putting demeanor, Spacey is so stiff in the role you’d think he’s never played a man in such power before.

Those two are such consummate professionals the fact I could never see past the actors wasn’t an issue. If anything, it’s a treat being aware of performers working with material with this many implications, just to see what two of the greatest working actors today are able to do. That hand-slapping reflex test was improvised by Shannon, apparently. Of the two, Spacey is generally better because you could argue his awkwardness blends magnificently with Nixon’s persona. Shannon neither looks nor sounds like Elvis, though his soft charm and towering presence positively oozes The King of Rock’n Roll.

Supporting them is an impressive albeit random mix of recognizable names. Some, like Colin Hanks’ Egil “Bud” Krogh, fare better than others. Krogh is significant as he’d go on to be convicted for his role in the Watergate scandal, so it’s difficult to believe someone as innately likable as the son of Tom Hanks would have this potential to be so corrupt. Evan Peters plays another faceless White House employe — Dwight Chapin — and he barely registers. Worst of them all is Alex Pettyfer, Elvis’ close friend and confidante Jerry Schilling. Pettyfer prefers to sleepwalk rather than use charisma to get through. In a surprising twist, though, Johnny Knoxville seems to be taking acting a bit more seriously these days. He’s quite watchable as another member of the ‘Memphis mafia,’ Sonny West.

The film moves quickly, working from the outside in, providing glimpses of the powers that be, comfortable and in control in their respective spaces before the weight of inevitability obliges the editors to get to the good stuff, a dynamite, if not bizarre, twenty-minute scene in which Spacey and Shannon are allowed to unbutton and let loose. Weak supporting parts notwithstanding, Elvis & Nixon is a graceland for larger-than-life characters. It’s a movie where every actor has to fight in some scenes to be taken seriously, but hey, this isn’t heavy drama, so what does it really matter in the end as long as we have some fun with it?

Screen Shot 2016-04-23 at 9.47.59 PM

Recommendation: Elvis & Nixon turns out to be a very fleeting event. It essentially improvises one of the stranger moments in the Nixon presidency by giving us a visual of what happened behind closed doors. It’s a film for those looking for less intense Kevin Spacey and Michael Shannon-lite. That doesn’t mean that this is an altogether forgettable film, though. The fact that this very bizarre afternoon really happened is likely to stay with you for some time.

Rated: R

Running Time: 86 mins.

Quoted: “Who the f**k set this up?”

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

Jane Got a Gun

'Jane Got a Gun' movie poster

Release: Friday, January 29, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Brian Duffield; Anthony Tambakis; Joel Edgerton

Directed by: Gavin O’Connor

Call it a troubled production but don’t call it a complete misfire. Though it may be a few shoot-outs short of a memorable western, Jane Got a Gun still gots a job to do and it does it rather well all things considered.

It’s a film that has seen a revolving door of cast and crew come and go, with Warrior director Gavin O’Connor squeaking in at the last second after the original helmer dropped out on day one of shooting. Joel Edgerton was supposed to be playing a villainous role but Ewan McGregor got it instead, filling in for Brad Cooper who was filling in for Jude Law . . . who was filling in for Michael Fassbender. Cinematographers were also replaced.

Some part of my appreciation for this movie‘s inextricably linked to my sympathy toward Natalie Portman here. Playing a game of musical chairs with the actors you’re potentially going to share a screen with can’t be much fun. Indeed if you look close enough in a few scenes you can almost feel if not confusion, then the frustration that the actress is clearly experiencing out of character. And if it’s not Portman being underwhelming then surely it’s the script; its heart wasn’t really in this either.

At film’s open we’re staring down the barrel of a fairly standard revenge western. Jane is a strong and capable frontierswoman who finds herself nursing her husband Bill (Noah Emmerich) back to health after he returns home one afternoon bloodied and riddled with bullets. Bill warns her that the notorious Bishop brothers are coming after them, prompting Jane to take their young daughter to a faraway homestead to which she promises to return once this situation has been ‘handled.’ (It’s not quite Clint Eastwood promising/threatening justice/revenge, but Portman’s confidence doesn’t go unnoticed.)

McGregor is almost unrecognizable as the bloodthirsty John Bishop. He too is a product of a watered-down script, a cartoonish villain as if by design. McGregor is smarmy and he has his moments but this is more Kenneth Branagh as Arliss Loveless  than a man we should really take seriously. Boyd Holbrook plays younger brother Vic. He’s kind of just there. With such a cultivated physical appearance, I was sort of surprised to see what a bunch of lame-o’s Bishop’s entourage really was.

Joel Edgerton digs his hands into the dirt sportingly as Jane’s ex-husband Dan Frost, a gunslinger who enlisted in the Civil War and left it only to find his wife had moved on. Now she seeks him out for extra protection from the incoming attack(s) and, although bitterness isn’t very becoming, it somehow suits Edgerton and he all but confirms the technique will never disappear. That’d be okay if it’s used more subtly than it is in this movie. Dan’s easier to pull for when he inevitably returns to the frame because . . . well, when Edgerton plays a good guy, how can you not root for him?

So Portman isn’t the only one fighting an uphill battle, saddled with an underdeveloped character as well as an unambitious screenplay. The trio of Portman, Edgerton and McGregor fair the best and each of them succeed in overcoming the dryness aridness of the writing. As Jane, Portman is one of the year’s first strong female leads and her intensity in the final scenes certainly sets an impressive benchmark.

It’s her persistent toughness and intermittent vulnerability that gets us through a deliberately (bordering on tediously) paced two acts before bullets truly start flying in the much-anticipated, chillingly shot climax. (Interestingly, the most consistent aspect of the production is undoubtedly Mandy Walker’s warm, vibrant photography.) By and large the film is beautiful to look at and on a visual level it succeeds in evoking the classics. Jane Got a Gun does show signs of a lot of wear and tear, the story isn’t as focused as it ought to be and many edits are questionable but even given all of its faults this one’s difficult not to like. Not pity, but actually like.

Natalie Portman and Joel Edgerton in 'Jane Got a Gun'

Recommendation: The film won’t really ‘wow’ anyone, yet there’s enough here to more than recommend a watching at home (it’s heading out of theaters so quickly the wait won’t be long) with popcorn and your caffeinated beverage of choice. Portman, Edgerton and McGregor are great reasons to see this movie. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 98 mins.

Quoted: “My life’s worth isn’t your concern. Hasn’t been for years.”

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.actucine.com 

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

13 Hours movie poster

Release: Friday, January 15, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Chuck Hogan

Directed by: Michael Bay

Michael Bay visits the Middle East in only his second non-Transformers extravaganza in nearly a decade. Following in the footsteps of Clint Eastwood (American Sniper) and Peter Berg (Lone Survivor), Bay seems to have had an epiphany of his very own: I too can profit enormously from releasing a war film capable of melting America’s heart in the throes of winter. I’ll call it . . . 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.

Here’s the thing, though: the movie isn’t terrible. It’s not great, but I’ve been waiting for years for Bay to step away from the CGI orgies he’s been participating in obsessed with, because his box office behemoths betray a true talent for staging sequences of almost unbearable tension. 13 Hours may be a far cry from memorable, but here comes a patriotic little package that’s almost worth cheering for, if for no other reason than it doesn’t feature Megan Fox or any number of Bay’s usual female muses. (Is muse the right word?)

Mitchell Zuckoff’s novel, ’13 Hours,’ is awarded the big screen treatment in this relentlessly intense and at times graphic account of six security contractors and their courageous efforts to protect an American diplomatic compound and Ambassador Chris Stevens from waves of heavily-armed Islamic terrorists. It’s important the distinction of a compound be made because much of the farce stems from the fact that had it been an Embassy, greater security measures would almost certainly have been taken.

That the attacks, which took the lives of the Ambassador (Matt Letscher), Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith (Christopher Dingli), Tyrone “Rone” Woods (James Badge Dale) and Glen “Bub” Doherty (Toby Stephens), occurred on the 11-year anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks serves to heighten the drama. Making matters worse was the lack of support, both aerial and on the ground, provided for the small crew of literal guns-for-hire. (Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has since acknowledged the government did in fact mishandle this operation, but if you’re expecting any kind of condemnation on that front you’re in the wrong movie.)

Curiously absent from proceedings is any sort of political commentary in both Bay’s direction and Chuck Hogan’s screenplay. It could be argued that the ostensible neutrality actually shields 13 Hours from becoming the next hotly-contested political drama, a fate Eastwood’s chronicling of the deadliest sniper in American history fell victim to last year — though shots of a topless (and completely ripped) John Krasinski, who plays experienced military man Jack Silva and the montages of substantially muscly men doing substantially muscly-man things like flipping over massive tires and knocking out pull-ups like it ain’t no thang, does nothing but prop America up on a pedestal that the innocent Libyans pictured herein have nary a prayer of mounting themselves.

Bay tries to do the right thing and account for some semblance of goodness in a city renowned for its hostility (Benghazi, along with Tripoli, has long been atop the list of most dangerous cities in the world). Two-thirds of the film centers on the desperate defensive stand the various ex-Navy SEALs and Marines attempt to mount as forces overrun the compound before setting their sights on the CIA annex a mile down the road. Amidst the chaos — the most coherent action set piece Bay has constructed in some time — he attempts to convey the mounting distrust between locals who sympathize with the Americans and those who are clearly anti-western civilization (read: the guys in the background who have a sullen look on their face).

In the end the freneticism, the emphasis on explosions and melodrama simply overwhelms and we, the visually-assaulted paying customers, cannot be held accountable for missing certain details such as who may be aligning with whom. But that’s what all but the most ardent of Bay supporters come to expect out of a film baring his name. Drowning in a sea of action is kind of part of the deal (and hey, at least Bay offers quite a lot of opportunities for stunt men). 13 Hours doesn’t offer particularly incisive commentary; it’s more observation and opportunistic than eye-opening. The performances aren’t worth much either. The best thing I can say about it is that it is Michael Bay-lite.

John Krasinski in '13 Hours - The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi'

Recommendation: Come for the explosions, stay for the headache. 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi manifests as arguably Michael Bay’s best film in years, but does that mean it’s any good? For this reviewer, no, not really. As much as I like the guys from The Office (Krasinski is reunited with David Denman here), they have absolutely no screen presence and the long stand-off gets old fairly quickly. The bravery on display can’t be discounted however, and for that Bay and his crew deserve at least some credit.  

Rated: R

Running Time: 144 mins.

Quoted: “I haven’t thought of my family once tonight. I’m thinking about them now.”

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Spectre

Spectre movie poster

Release: Friday, November 6, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: John Logan; Neal Purvis; Robert Wade; Jez Butterworth

Directed by: Sam Mendes

Spectre, a proposition with so much weight and symbolism behind it it required four writers to collaborate on the story. Four writers means four times the quality, right?

Right . . . ?

After three years James Bond comes flying back into action in Sam Mendes’ parting gift to fans of a franchise that’s by now half a century old. The literal sense of ‘flying’ is certainly more applicable as Mendes spends precious little time setting up his first action spectacle involving a helicopter, a stepping-stone of a henchman and a backdrop of Mexico engulfed in the Day of the Dead festivities where everyone looks like skeletons. A none too subtle reference to the fact Bond is now literally up to his neck in death. It’s an inescapable entity.

Metaphorically speaking? Well, if we’re talking big picture — and why not, this is a pretty big picture after all . . . arguably second only to that movie about wars amongst the stars coming up in December — Bond doesn’t so much come flying back as he does carefully, calmly touch back down with parachute attached, in the vein of one of his many improbable escapes in this movie.

Spectre had one hell of a steep mountain to climb if it was interested in besting its visually spectacular, emotionally hard-hitting predecessor, though it’s going to have much less issue summoning the spectators who are curious as to where Bond’s threshold for enduring misery and pain comes, if it comes at all. Invoking the sinister organization that gave Sean Connery a bit of grief back in the ’60s is one way to attract the masses (not to mention, something to build an aggressive marketing campaign around). Budgeted at an almost incomprehensible $250(ish) million, it’ll go down as one of the most expensive productions of all time.

Recouping that may not be as much of a challenge as I’m thinking it might be right now. When word gets out that Spectre is merely decent and not great — and it will soon enough — it will be interesting to see what happens. Will a lack of ambition deprive it the opportunity to become a major contender for top grossers this year? I suppose I better hold my tongue because anything can and does happen.

Ignoring its business potential, and for all of its shortcomings, of which there are disappointingly many, Spectre is still good old-fashioned James Bond, emerging a stylistically superior product — sleek and ultra-sexy, bathed in shadow and whipping slithery, shiny tentacles with menace in another memorable opening title sequence. Yet for all the familiarity this is the least Daniel Craig-y Bond we’ve seen. It’s a bizarre mix of some of the heaviest themes the franchise has yet visited with a comical edge reminiscent of the Pierce Brosnan era. (I won’t go as far as to bring up Roger Moore’s name . . . whoops.)

In some ways it makes sense; Mendes probably felt he needn’t overdo the dourness this time as we’ve been thoroughly bruised by what 007’s sacrificed in Casino Royale and now Skyfall. These aren’t DC Comic film adaptations; they shouldn’t be all punishment. The film should have some balance, and while the humor’s less punny as Brosnan’s brand, the way it’s introduced draws attention to itself in often jarring ways. Something doesn’t quite feel organic.

Spectre‘s concerned with shaking Bond to his core, as a man and as a professional assassin with a British accent and impossibly high-class taste in women. He’s going to get rattled even more so than he was in the last outing, where he basically lost everything. Mendes finds ways to make it more personal as we move beyond M and start digging into Bond’s familial history. Bond stumbles upon a mysterious ring that has an octopus symbol on it and sets out learning about its origins and who else might be wearing one. There’s also an old photograph, with parts of it burned away so you can’t make out one of the faces in it.

This hunt, unapproved by MI6, leads him on another exotic globetrotting mission — these transitions feel considerably less inspired than in times past — that takes him from Mexico to Austria, Tangiers to a desolate meteorite crater in Morocco and ultimately back to MI6 headquarters in London. On the way he comes into contact with friends both new and old — top of the list is the daughter of a rapidly ailing Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux, who is somehow even sexier than before), whom he must protect even when she insists she can protect herself thank you very much. But she doesn’t factor in Dave Bautista’s brute of a hitman, Hinx.

Madeleine turns out to be a handy traveling companion as she helps Bond get closer to finding out what the octopus ring represents. She, with a dark past she would rather soon forget than get into another gun fight, is reluctant to join Bond in seeking out the lair of one Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). She does anyway because the script is that insistent. (So no, to answer the question: four writers does not necessarily equate to four times the quality.)

As Bond is off galavanting about, the situation on the home front is turning rather dire as MI6 has become absorbed by a larger network of secret service agencies, the CNS, spearheaded by Andrew Scott’s sneering and highly enjoyable Max Denbigh. His rhetoric is not as newsworthy as the filmmakers would like us to believe it is. He wants to shut down the 00 sector and replace human field agents with drones and computers, arguing one man in the field is no match for technological upgrades. He’s right.

But it doesn’t matter because with Bond being Bond, especially now with Craig taking the role in a direction that’s ever more hinting towards the muscularity of a Jason Bourne and away from the debonair of Sean Connery, there’s little they can do to prevent him using his License to Kill. I don’t care how threatening you may appear in front of Ralph Fiennes, you can’t take scissors to a card and denounce Bond’s status as an agent. You can scrub him from the official files, I suppose. Alas, the old argument: the instincts and emotional judgment of man versus the unfeeling, calculated efficiency of A.I. Sigh. This is, unfortunately, where we go in Spectre. And as for the family matters, the less said about it the better (take that as both a good and bad thing).

Mendes’ last entry is a good film on its own terms but it shrugs off its responsibility to be the most compelling entry in the franchise thus far, at certain points seeming so disinterested in upping the ante and instead revisiting many classic Bond moments in a pastiche that feels both unnecessary and awkward. Save for the aforementioned supervillian, who is by turns thoroughly disturbing and darkly funny — here’s where the humor would be a bit too sophisticated for the Brosnan era — Spectre introduces precious little new information. It’s a painful thing to say, but perhaps this sector is indeed obsolete at this point.

Recommendation: While not vintage James Bond, Spectre offers enough to fans of this long-standing franchise to keep some momentum going, even if quite a lot is lost. A good film with more than the usual number of flaws, is this film yet another victim of the hype machine? What do you think?

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 148 mins.

Quoted: “It was me, James. The author of all your pain.”

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

Beasts of No Nation

Release: Friday, October 16, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Cary Joji Fukunaga

Directed by: Cary Joji Fukunaga

Beasts of No Nation represents another first for the mecca of online streaming media that is Netflix, becoming its first original feature-film debut, and a potent one at that.

Despite voluntarily sacrificing potential business, major theater chains such as AMC, Regal and Carmike are throwing a hissy fit and refusing to screen the picture, deeming its online availability a violation of their exclusive 90-day release period. Too bad for them. While the convenience Beasts presents to anyone with a Netflix subscription suggests it will be readily consumed by the masses, its thoroughly brutal subject matter is likely to put it at odds with a great many subscribers. This is a film of almost impenetrable darkness, fabricated out of the stuff of real-life nightmares reminiscent of the Darfurian and Liberian conflicts. Needless to say it takes some courage to watch, at least without pausing.

Cary Joji Fukunaga’s harrowing probe into a war-torn, nameless West African nation finds a young boy named Agu (Ghanaian actor Abraham Attah in a brilliant and heartbreaking debut role) falling into the clutches of a rebel army led by Idris Elba’s sadistic Commandant after Agu flees into the dense forest away from violence recently visited upon his town, violence that has just claimed the lives of his older brother and father. His mother and younger sister manage to make it onto a cramped bus bound for the nation’s capital. Beasts is so consistently bleak that although we never see the pair again, we may as well assume they don’t make it there alive, either. I suppose it would help to be more positive and just assume the opposite, but who really knows.

Fukunaga’s uncompromising vision finds much success in a lack of structure, in unbridled chaos; this is a film centered around child soldiers committing war crimes that grown men would be desperate to forget for the rest of their lives. In fact, that’s one of the subtler tragedies evoked by the quite incidental fate Agu meets when he’s plucked out of the lush canopy by an intimidating man surrounded by kids of varying ages and threatening countenances. Watch how quickly the boy is stripped of his innocence. One particularly gruesome scene suggests Agu loses it in one fell swoop, yet this ‘initiation’ merely marks the beginning of the fall.

Beasts is somewhat aimless in its traipsing through endless overgrowth and through towns just like the one Agu and Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye), a mute boy with whom he bonds, have been ripped away from, yet there’s a method to Fukunaga’s madness. And that is indeed it — madness. The Commandant takes great pleasure in his propagandistic leadership, while the film zeroes in on the specific relationship he has with his newest recruit. We learn through Agu’s eyes how everyone else has been similarly brainwashed, convinced that it is the war that has done this to them and their families. The leader (who apparently always looks “all right”) has merely saved their lives and now they must avenge what has been lost. (Of course, he’s not a true malefactor without having ulterior motives, like earning a long-sought promotion, which, in effect, demonstrates the degree to which the guy actually cares about his troops.)

Beasts, which was not only written and directed by Fukunaga but produced and framed as well, manifests more as an unfeeling, journalistic observation than a damning political statement. There’s a part where the group is patrolling an open road and gets passed by a vehicle carrying what are obvious outsiders, armed with cameras and looks of horror as Agu and Strika flank Commandant while mimicking his thuggish comportment. However intentional the parallel is remains unclear, but our status as third-party to these atrocities puts us in that vehicle from which we look on, helpless to do anything. The neutrality works insofar as it allows the violence to unfold frankly and from all angles, much of it being dispensed by our tortured protagonist.

But that same neutrality clashes with the internal monologue Fukunaga inserts at sporadic intervals; Agu expressing on more than one occasion how he doesn’t remember time passing, that he fears God is no longer paying attention to him. His thoughts come infrequently to the point where they interrupt rather than compliment the perspective driven by camera angles and a focus on the dynamic between the follower and the leader. Regarding the latter, it helps that Elba is absolutely outstanding in this vile supporting role, but it’s a shame he all but disappears from the frame somewhat surprisingly. Fukunaga leaves just a little too much interpretation up to us by failing to bang his gavel and sentencing the bad guys to whatever fate they deserve.

Would a less ambiguous conclusion have made Beasts an easier watch? Of course not. And it wouldn’t have made the film any easier to forget. But it might have helped crystallize just what we’ve gained by trudging through two hours of hell. All the same, this is a project that displays great confidence in delivering gut punches by focusing on an oft-overlooked aspect of war, and a part of the world that doesn’t receive the attention it ought to. Filmed on location in Ghana, this is a beast of a film.

Recommendation: Not exactly an easy watch, Beasts of No Nation represents a grim reality that mainstream films have for too long ignored. Granted I don’t think the concept of child soldiers perpetrating war crimes makes for an easy pitch, so good for Fukunaga for committing to it and for involving a quality actor in the British thespian. Amazing performances all around, in fact. If you’re strong-willed, you shouldn’t let this one pass you by. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 137 mins.

Quoted: “Bullet is just eating everything, leaves, trees, ground, person. Eating them. Just making person to bleed everywhere. We are just like wild animals now, with no place to be going. Sun, why are you shining at this world? I am wanting to catch you in my hands, to squeeze you until you can not shine no more. That way, everything is always dark and nobody’s ever having to see all the terrible things that are happening here.”

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

TBT: Unforgiven (1992)

Thursdays come around pretty quickly, do they not? It seems only yesterday I was babbling on excessively about Chinatown and now, here we are, forging new frontiers yet again in October. This month is shaping up to be one of the most eclectic groups of films I’ve yet had on this blog, which is kind of cool (or I hope it is, maybe it’s really not. People are probably disappointed that I’ve gone the non-horror route this month. . .). Life is full of grim realities, as is evidenced in 

Today’s food for thought: Unforgiven.

Enforcing that pesky ‘no-guns’ ordinance since: Friday, August 7, 1992

[Netflix]

So I blindly stumbled into 1992’s Best Picture winner, not realizing it had picked up any awards, let alone taken home top honors and garnered several others including Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Best Editing. I’m glad I watched it without this knowledge. I didn’t have my viewing experience tainted by the lofty expectations brought on by Best Picture winners. I did, however, have a sneaking suspicion it was a sure-fire winner for Best Cinematography, for the film’s romanticism for the old west is impossible to ignore. Alas, that was only one of its nine nominations.

Clint Eastwood produced, directed and starred in this harsh, uncompromising vision of life on the frontier, specifically 1880s Wyoming. His last Western, Unforgiven tells the bleak story about a farmer with a dark history who gets roped into collecting one more bounty after a group of prostitutes in the town of Big Whiskey are shaken up by some thugs who get off lightly thanks to the local sheriff. Rather than making the cowboys pay with their own blood for disfiguring one of the girls, Sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman, earning his second Oscar) decides they will find a suitable number of horses to give to the brothel owner, a total of seven horses fit for hard labor. Infuriated by the injustice, Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher) announces a cash reward for whomever can find and kill the men responsible.

Decrepit old pig farmer Will Munny (Eastwood) was once one of the most feared men in the midwest, known for ruthlessly killing men, women and children alike. When he met his wife he vowed to change his ways, although she passed away before the film opens, leaving him vulnerable once more to the loneliness and despair of bachelorhood on the prairie. Word about the bounty travels fast and Will finds he could really use the money (I can only imagine how long you could make $1,000 last back in the 1800s . . . ). After telling his children he’ll be back “in a couple weeks” he rides south, headed for an old accomplice and friend’s homestead, one Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman).

On their ride the pair encounter an excitable young cowboy nicknamed ‘The Schofield Kid’ (Jaimz Woolvett) who doesn’t exactly view killing the same way the older and jaded Ned and Will do. Whereas he can’t wait to kill the sumbitches responsible, the other two, haunted by violent pasts, anticipate and to some extent dread what they will soon have to do. Meanwhile in Big Whiskey, a town that strictly prohibits visitors to carry guns on their person, Daggett has to contend with the contemptible English Bob (Richard Harris), who’s come to town in hopes that he’ll get to claim the cash reward. His out-of-town status is made amply clear on the virtue that he believes the superiority of the British royalty is based upon how easy it is for an American president to get shot and killed (the assassination of President Garfield has just made the papers).

Indeed, English Bob is a bit of an annoyance, but he’s all bluster compared to the aggressive sheriff, who takes pleasure in kicking Bob all around the town after he refuses to hand over his firearms to the proper authorities, and subsequently kicking him out of town. In a single scene a couple of things become clear: 1) Big Whiskey is a well-defended and hostile little community; and 2) Gene Hackman deserved that Oscar. His law enforcer is a real bad seed, Hackman’s penchant for intimidating characters culminating in the dastardly Daggett.

Unforgiven is a departure from many western films and violent films in general in that rather than glorifying and exaggerating the violent nature of survival in supposedly simpler times, it emphasizes the personal toll it takes on someone who has killed, be it for survival or in self-defense. Killing just for the sake of killing isn’t the issue here. The difference between the Schofield Kid’s lust for blood (in a fireside scene he boasts about killing five men already despite his age) and the older men’s reluctance to keep pulling the trigger comes under scrutiny as they inch ever closer to their destiny. Eastwood, the director, emphasizes subtlety and ruminates on the extreme nature of killing. “It’s a hell of a thing, to kill a man. Take away everything he’s got, everything he will ever have,” Will says to the deeply disturbed Schofield Kid in the aftermath of a shoot-out.

The delicate treatment of life and death is handled brilliantly in said scene, where the trio come across their targets in a shallow canyon and stalk them out. In a western, it’s all too natural to expect the scene to erupt into a battle of bullets and bloodshed, but Eastwood keeps it contained. As one of the cowboys slowly bleeds out, from around a protective hill Will asks one of his fellow riders to give him some water, an act of compassion that, rather than softening the film, bolsters Unforgiven‘s comity.

As a result, the action that pops up sporadically — this film is also restrained in terms of how often it breaks into fits of chaos and one-upmanship, as these things often do — hits much harder. Because we learn to respect the violence when it happens, it’s that much more difficult to watch Daggett lash out (literally) against those who defy him. This isn’t to say Unforgiving is a bloodless picture, of course, but Eastwood deserves credit for recognizing the difference between effective depictions of violence and simple mind-numbing excess. In a time when civilization was more obviously defined by responses to matters of life-and-death, it’s refreshing to journey back to that time where seemingly more trivial concepts like decency, courtesy and respect have more of a role.

Eastwood’s final journey out on to the frontier manifests as a thoroughly enjoyable, occasionally jarring and often somber adventure that has far more intelligence than the typical shoot-’em-up. And the final showdown between Will and Daggett confirms once again that there is no one more badass than Clint Eastwood.

Recommendation: A restrained picture in terms of how it depicts violence and stages action set pieces, Unforgiven is a unique western that reminds one far more of a psychological drama than anything John Wayne or Paul Newman might have starred in. Well-acted and beautifully shot, this is a trip well worth taking if you haven’t seen it before and are curious about one of the last truly great westerns. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 131 mins.

TBTrivia: Only the third western to ever win the Best Picture Oscar. The other two being Dances with Wolves (1990) and Cimarron (1931).

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

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