6 Underground

Release: Friday, December 13, 2019 (Netflix)

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Written by: Paul Wernick; Rhett Reese

Directed by: Michael Bay

It’s my fourth week of isolation and while we’ve got a way to go still before we can socially un-distance, I’m pretty sure I’ve just hit a low point. I am now inviting Michael Bay in to my living room to give me some company. What an insult to Tiger King that I prioritized this spectacle of awfulness over it. Bay’s latest happens to be his first ever direct-to-streaming offering, so I thought there might be something different about 6 Underground. Something, oh I don’t know, more restrained about it. That’s cute, Tom.

6 Underground vomits two hours of non-stop destruction of city monuments and human bodies that could have been trimmed to 90 minutes if you cut out all the fancy slow-motion shots. In what passes as a story barely held together by duct tape editing, a crew of six (or is that seven?) vigilante agents fake their own deaths in order to take on the Great Evils of the world without having to deal with all the government red tape. In this movie, one of an inevitable many, the bad guy is a tyrannical dictator named Rovach Alimov (Lior Raz), who rules a fictitious Middle Eastern country through brutal violence and threatening the people through state-run media.

These ghost agents aren’t referred to by their names but rather their numbers, because getting personal proves really tricky when you’re busy saving the world. ‘One’ is a billionaire played by Ryan Reynolds. He’s Team Leader and this quasi-genius who has made his fortune on magnets. The half of 6 Underground that isn’t spent on things blowing up in a fireworks display or peering up women’s skirts is dedicated to a sloppily constructed, disorienting montage where we learn how the others have been seduced into contributing to his humanitarian efforts. ‘Two’ (Mélanie Laurent) is a CIA spy; ‘Three’ (Manuel Garcia-Rolfo) a hitman; ‘Four’ (Ben Hardy) a parkour runner/thief; and ‘Five’ (Adria Arjona) a doctor.

The story begins with an Italian job gone to hell that culminates in their driver/’Six’ getting violently and fatally impaled, meaning Dave Franco gets a mercifully small role to play in this farce. He’s replaced by an Army sniper (Corey Hawkins) who is suffering survivor’s guilt after a mission in Afghanistan goes wrong. He’s brought in to the fold as ‘Seven,’ but mostly serves as a conduit through which we learn how the others were drafted and how there are advantages to this whole “being dead” thing. The actors do what they can with bland characters who riff on this whole concept of being gone and forgotten. Meanwhile, back and forth and up and down and side to side the narrative goes, one that’s so unfocused it is hard to believe it’s created by the writers of Deadpool and Zombieland.

Structurally, this action thriller is three 40-minute-long action sequences occasionally interrupted by a few moments of respite where the main goals are established with some F**k You’s thrown in to make sure you know this is an R-rated picture. Within those action sequences there are some memorable set pieces, such as the infiltration of a high rise in Hong Kong where the gang must capture the aforementioned dictator’s younger, nicer brother Murat (Payman Maadi). The granddaddy of them all, however, is the billion-dollar yacht that gets turned into “the world’s biggest magnet” and serves up a number of creative, intensely violent kills.

6 Underground is a gorgeous looking movie. That’s straight-up fact. Bay blitzes you with scenery featuring grand architecture sparkling in the blood orange sunsets. There are some pretty inventive camera angles that throw the chaos in your face as if you yourself are about to get bisected by some random object. If you pay attention, you might even see a shot of some camels in their natural element! But in the way Laurent is forced into stripping down for a pointless sex scene between two dead people, 6 Underground and its entire cast suffer from Bay’s fixation on artifice. Bonus points if he can get all these good-looking people splattered in the blood of the soon-to-be-not-living.

It’s a still frame, but you can still detect the slow-mo

Recommendation: Queue it up on Netflix for you to knock out on Quarantine Day #309. Don’t be a Tom. Don’t be in a such a hurry to watch Michael Bay indulge in all his worst excesses. 6 Underground is a total mess, a bad movie even by his standards.  

Rated: R

Running Time: 128 mins.

Quoted: “They say that your soul departs when you pass. Well, for us, it was the opposite. The moment nothing to lose became something to gain. And the whole wide world seemed a little less haunted.”

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Photo credits: IMP Awards; IMDb 

The Wandering Earth

Release: Monday, May 6, 2019 (Netflix)

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Written by: Gong Ge’er; Junce Ye; Yan Dongxu; Yang Zhixue; Frant Gwo

Directed by: Frant Gwo

Describing The Wandering Earth as an ambitious movie is an understatement. That’s like saying Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad had cult followings. The sheer scale and spectacle on display make the likes of Michael Bay and Peter Jackson look like film school students operating on shoestring budgets.

The movie presents a doomsday scenario to end all doomsday scenarios. In the year 2061 we face annihilation as our Sun is dying and will within a century swell to encompass Earth’s orbit and within 300 years the entire solar system. In order for us — or what’s left of us — to survive we need to find a new galactic home. We’ve targeted the Alpha Centauri system as our destination. Building a bunch of space-worthy life rafts is neither practical nor egalitarian — who knows whether the darned things would survive the 2,500-year odyssey, and at $30 million a ticket that basically ensures only the Jeff Bezos of the world would be able to go.

So get this: We’re going to push the entire rock out of harm’s way using thousands of fusion-powered thrusters clamped on to the Earth’s surface. Each one the size of a city, they require an incredible amount of human ingenuity (and cooperation) to work properly. (There’s the operative phrase in movies like this — you just know something will go wrong with them at just the worst time.) We’ll use Jupiter as a slingshot to get us out of the solar system and a leading space station manned by a few brave scientists/engineers who defer to a computer that’s cribbed right from a certain Stanley Kubrick film to guide us through the cosmic dark. If all goes according to plan we should avoid getting sucked in by the giant planet’s strong gravitational field and dying a very gaseous death.

Yikes.

When it comes to the human side of the equation, The Wandering Earth is much less ambitious. Admittedly, human drama isn’t the reason this Chinese blockbuster has become a global sensation. But it would be nice if there were compelling characters to further bolster this awesome visual spectacle. I suppose therein lies the difference between American and Chinese filmmaking — The Wandering Earth certainly emphasizes collective over individual triumph. That’s compelling in its own way. But then half of the running time is devoted to the rebellious — downright reckless and seriously contrived — actions of a resentful Liu Qi (Chuxiao Qu) and his less-resentful but just-as-thrill-seeking adopted sister Han Duoduo (Jin Mai Jaho) as they become thrust into a last-ditch attempt to restart the planetary thrusters after sustaining heavy damage due to an unforeseen gravitational spike near Jupiter. A promise made and then broken by their father (played by famed martial arts actor/director Jing Wu) sets the stage for an attempt at intimacy but that simply gets lost in all the catastrophic disaster set pieces.

Just as the story finds humanity in a major transitional period, The Wandering Earth finds director Frant Gwo undergoing a major one himself. Prior to filming China’s first “full-scale interstellar spectacular” he had only two feature film credits to his name — neither of which hinted towards his next project being anything like this. In an industry largely built upon plush historical/martial arts epics there was understandably some reticence toward forging a new frontier. There was such little faith in Gwo’s ability to deliver that actors not only sacrificed paychecks but personally invested in the film to ensure the show would go on and became real-life saviors for the film. Wu, for example, was never intended to be a lead; he initially agreed to be in only one scene but the film needed star power and so Gwo rewrote the script, tailoring it to a father-son dynamic that, at least in theory, forms the emotional core of the movie.

The Wandering Earth, since its release back in February, has gone on to become the second-highest grossing non-English film ever made, earning $700 million in China alone. Netflix picked up the rights to distribute and well, here we are, navigating perilously between episodes of cataclysmic destruction, each one of them enough to wipe us all out on their own. The challenges that face Liu Qi and co. alone make 2012 look like a quaint little indie movie.

It’s a lot to process — or, you know, not process. State-sponsored messaging aside, it’s totally down to the individual as to whether you can take this puree of nonsensical, approximated science and unearned sentimentality at face value — “hey, it’s all in the name of good old-fashioned, goofy fun” — or whether the absurd physics required to save us again (and once again) are just a bridge too far.

Asking me? I appreciated the lack of Aerosmith, at the very least. The Wandering Earth presents a dire situation in a way that’s easy to watch with your jaw slacked and brain on autopilot. At points it becomes surprisingly dark. And boy does the thing look gorgeous. Despite the computer rendering essentially subbing as Characters they help you invest in the visual spectacle. Yet The Wandering Earth, just for the simple fact someone conceived of this, earns a spot on my shelf of guilty-pleasure, geek-tastic sci fi blow-outs. It slides in well above the likes of Armageddon and The Day After Tomorrow while never coming close to competing with more intellectually-stimulating adventures like Interstellar and Sunshine.

Catching a red-eye.

Recommendation: A classic example of popcorn-destroying, mindless entertainment that feels like a Hollywood production but one without an American hero in sight. Filled with as many impressive visual effects as plot holes, The Wandering Earth should entertain sci fi fans in search of their next epic space adventure — one they can consume right in their laps (or via their cushy little home theater set-ups). Spoken mostly in Mandarin with English subtitles. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 125 mins.

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

TBT: Bad Boys (1995)

new-tbt-logo

Ah yes, the glorious return of TBT continues! So I actually had this idea at one point where I’d possibly substitute this month’s batch with an entirely new idea: I’d call it ‘Masterpiece May.’ It would focus on films most people regard as classics. But because I couldn’t get my shit together in time, I bailed on the plan. Maybe one day something like that will happen, but for now we have more Throwback Thursdays to look forward to. We leave the music scene behind and enter into buddy-cop action-comedy territory with

Today’s food for thought: Bad Boys.

bad-boyzzzzzzzz

Destroying the ‘hood since: May 19, 1995

[external hard drive] 

I don’t know what I was doing when Michael Bay’s outrageously fun Bad Boys debuted, but I wasn’t in a theater showing it, that’s all sure. At the end of 1995 I would be moving from the “great” state of Texas — my family’s Plymouth Rock having moved from England five years prior — to Tennessee (where I live now). I guess I was busy trying to get rid of the accent I had, a clinging to my parents’ rural Essex county dialect. No one would believe me now that I had one, but that doesn’t matter. I’m just glad I never picked up on the Texan drawl having lived on the southern panhandle for half a decade.

Texas wasn’t all bad. It was where I saw my first movie in theaters — Andre — and where I was introduced to the world of Toy Story on the big screen. I missed a lot of good movies though, and it seems this would be included. Michael Bay’s Bad Boys is cinematic escapism almost at its finest. It’s big and bombastic, loud and obnoxious, sexy and exhilarating. I hesitate to call this a perfect escape because while this is arguably the best thing Bay has done thus far, especially considering it was his feature film debut, our adrenaline was nonetheless assuaged by Baymaggedon.

Bad Boys features Will Smith and Martin Lawrence as two undercover loose cannon Miami detectives, Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett respectively, who have four days to recover $100 million worth of heroin, originally seized from local Mafia and brilliantly snatched right out from under the Miami Police Department’s nose. Time being a factor, Mike recruits a friend named Max (Karen Alexander), who in turn insists her friend Julie (Téa Leoni) join her, to help scout out potential suspects, people who have seemingly come into a lot of money very quickly.

Bay’s directorial touch, a subtlety equivalent to that of an enraged Decepticon, has in recent times been scathingly criticized and more often than not it has been deserved. Bad Boys represents a habit-forming process but at least in this fairly breezy outing the “exposition-explosion-explosion-explosion-conclusion” is a structure more palatable than it is predictable given Smith and Lawrence’s mordant rapport. Still, let’s not give Bay too big an ego here. The end game fails to add up to anything more than your typical American action extravaganza: get the drugs/money, save the damsel in distress — Leoni’s call girl (wowee) becomes ensnared in Mike and Marcus’ operation after surviving a gang-related shooting that tragically claims Max’s life — all while looking (being?) indestructible the entire time.

In the same way I learned to outgrow my British accent, over time Bay has, purposefully or not, learned to strip away most of the enticing elements that made Bad Boys a romping good time. With his Transformers franchise, particularly the unabashedly bombastic sequels, if you are able to characterize the choreographed chaos as having any kind of personality, you have a rare talent. You’ll have to let me know your secret; how to distinguish the original from its fourth iteration (soon to be a fifth). The only term that flashes upon the marquee of my mind is ‘generic action flick.’ Bad Boys doesn’t have novelty working in its favor consistently but the performers transform (sorry) trademark action blandness into something thoroughly enjoyable through sheer likability. On the casting of Smith and Lawrence alone Bay deserves applause. (Or at least casting agents Lynn Kressel and Francine Maisler.)

All of this is to say, what exactly? Do I regret not having been old enough to enter a theater playing this occasionally melodramatic buddy-cop action flick? Kinda sorta. Am I glad to have finally caught up with everyone else who has been singing its praises for years? Absolutely. Would I watch it again, or better yet — am I looking forward to Bad Boys II (and now, apparently, a second sequel)? Sigh. Yes, I suppose, but as far as the latter goes, I probably won’t rush to any theater to see that.

badmothafuckas

3-0Recommendation: This mid-90s actioner is a solid Michael Bay film, although I suppose one should take that with a decent-sized grain of salt. It’s action-packed and well-acted, despite a clunky script and often stilted dialogue. But the pair of leads ensures most people, the ones who buy into Will Smith and Martin Lawrence at least, will have an enjoyable albeit mindless two hours of cinematic escape. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 118 mins.

TBTrivia: “I love you, man:” just before filming the ending scene, Michael Bay and Will Smith got into a lengthy argument about whether or not Smith’s character should tell Martin Lawrence’s character “I love you.” Bay wanted him to say it, but Smith held his ground. Within 15 minutes of having to film the scene a frustrated Bay told Smith “he didn’t care whether he said it or not,” but finally Smith did say it. This is the clip they used as the final cut. 

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

Photo credits: http://www.moviesongs.com; http://www.fernbyfilms.com