The Tender Bar

Release: Friday, December 17, 2021 (limited)

👀 Amazon Prime

Written by: William Monahan

Directed by: George Clooney

Starring: Ben Affleck; Tye Sheridan; Daniel Ranieri; Lily Rabe; Max Martini; Christopher Lloyd; Briana Middleton

Distributor: Amazon Studios

 

 

**/*****

Movies about aspiring writers too often come across mawkish and cheesy. It’s almost a condition, something that just comes with the territory and which the likable but cliché The Tender Bar doesn’t do enough to defend against.

Orange County set on the East Coast, more specifically Long Island, The Tender Bar is a coming-of-age drama based on the memoir written by Pulitzer-prize winning novelist and journalist J.R. Moehringer. Filtered through thick accents and an unabashedly sentimental lens, it charts his path from humble upbringings to Yale University and a bit beyond, exploring the influence that his family had on shaping his dream. Yet for all its good intentions and stretches of excellent acting, it’s a strange feeling to sit through something as banal as what we get here, considering the talent both in front of and behind the camera and the Oscar-winning pedigree of screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed).

While it’s certainly not the latter’s best effort — the dialogue is often corny, most of it unfortunately spouted by Ron Livingston in his Wonder Years-like voice-over — this is more about George Clooney phoning it in as director, failing to girder Moehringer’s memoir with a compelling cinematic treatment. If this were your introduction to the subject (as it was for me) you might come away shrugging the whole thing off as inconsequential. Moehringer is an accomplished writer but the hackneyed presentation doesn’t make him seem very interesting.

About the only distinction The Tender Bar has is a terrific performance from Ben Affleck, who becomes the role model J.R.’s biological father never was interested in playing, particularly in his childhood. He plays Uncle Charlie, a stabilizing force in the chaotic house into which young J.R. (introducing Daniel Ranieri) and his mother (Lily Rabe) are flung at the movie’s open. He’s also the bartender at The Dickens, a little hole-in-the-wall where dozens of books line the shelves alongside the booze. It’s here where J.R. spends much of his time, sipping Coca-Cola and inhaling life advice from his sleeper-genius uncle, whose own murky career goals belie the clarity of his wisdom.

The movie’s other asset is Max Martini who provides the antithesis to Affleck’s charm and warmth. As J.R.’s father, a radio deejay only referred to as “The Voice,” he doesn’t appear for long but enough to leave a bruise. The inevitable confrontation between him and his upward-trending son (now Tye Sheridan — amiable if unremarkable), although patently predictable given Clooney’s strict adherence to formula, lends tension to a story where most obstacles are cleared without effort. And if not effortlessly cleared, needlessly repeated — Briana Middleton’s appearance as a love interest does nothing to advance the story, only to remind of the elitism that swirls at the Ivy League level.

The condescension J.R. experiences here is what we feel throughout much of the story. The Tender Bar is pleasant enough but also basic. Like its subject and his needing to know what his initials stand for, it’s constantly searching for an identity of its own.

You’re the greatest inspiration in my life, bar none

Moral of the Story: Though sometimes too schmaltzy, The Tender Bar has occasional moments of affecting character work, especially between Affleck and the young Ranieri. But he gets along famously with both actors, and it’s that dynamic I’d recommend more than anything else here. Without trying to sound snobby, it’s just not a particularly deep movie. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 104 mins.

Quoted: “I want to be a writer, but I suck.”

“Well, when you suck at writing, that’s when you become a journalist.”

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

Black Adam

Release: Friday, October 21, 2022

👀 Theater

Written by: Adam Sztykiel; Rory Haines; Sohrab Noshirvani 

Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra 

Starring: Dwayne Johnson; Aldis Hodge; Pierce Brosnan; Noah Centineo; Quintessa Swindell; Sarah Shahi; Marwan Kenzari; Bodhi Sabongui; Mohammed Amer

Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures

 

***/*****

Justice-seeking takes another dark turn with the arrival of Black Adam, the latest chapter in the sprawling (some might say stumbling) DCEU, a franchise known for its less sunny outlook and that has at times suffered for a lack of humor. So it’s almost counterintuitive that things do not exactly lighten up with the introduction of Dwayne Johnson in the title role. However his somber performance really works and on the whole the movie does as well, despite some familiar issues.

Originally making a cameo appearance in 2019’s Shazam!, the oversized anti-hero now gets his own standalone film, one where concerns surrounding True Champions and fake heroes seem not too far removed from the D-grade scripts The Rock played up to cheesy perfection back in the day. But this grim tale finds him in much lower spirits, his attitude and temperament the product of a character who has suffered maybe more than his share of pain. Even if Johnson is morose and unsmiling, he’s also really good in an atypical role and it’s not as though Black Adam is devoid of humor. He’s surrounded by a number of fun characters who keep the tone from spiraling into a melodramatic bore.

Black Adam tells a simple tale of choice as the titular character (introduced as Teth-Adam) struggles within himself to become either a force for good or a tool of destruction. It’s a bit of a slow and wobbly start, but when do openers burdened with the responsibility of summarizing thousands of years’ worth of backstory ever come off convincing? In 2600 BC, in the fictional Middle Eastern country of Kahndaq, a young slave boy, endowed with the powers of the ancient wizards, ostensibly frees his people after slaying the despotic King Ahk-Ton, earning his accolades as the city’s heroic champion. 

Yet a present-day Kahndaq still faces oppression in the form of modern crime syndicate Intergang and the debate still rages over whether Adam’s actions were noble or vengeful. Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi), an archaeologist sympathetic to his legend, stumbles upon the tomb of Teth-Adam and, believing she’s freeing him from wrongful entombment, recites an incantation. But someone’s woken up on the wrong side of the sarcophagus, an enraged Adam laying waste to virtually all life in the vicinity in a hair-raising intro that stands among the DCEU’s best. 

The trio of screenwriters does well to keep the events of Black Adam contained within a fast-moving, action-packed narrative. Unlike other chapters, concessions to other stories and properties are downplayed in favor of the spectacle everyone has paid to see, and that’s undoubtedly Dwayne Johnson coming in to his own as a hero with a hardened edge. A rare connective tissue comes in the form of Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, reprising her role as the world’s friendliest government agent) who is starkly against the idea of Adam roaming around in the world and so dispatches the Justice Society of America to subdue him.

Not to be confused with DC’s all-star ensemble which made its comics début as the Justice League a good two decades later, the Justice Society — Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) and Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan) — kick the excitement up a notch when they ask for peaceful cooperation but instead and predictably meet violent resistance. Somewhere between foe and friend, the Society, notably Brosnan’s stoic Kent Nelson and Hodge’s hot-headed Carter Hall, gives Black Adam a beating heart and a welcomed sense of humor.

Their collective abilities (my personal favorites being Atom Smasher’s lack of grace and the seemingly endless possibilities the Helmet of Fate provides) are eventually fully realized when the film’s “true threat” arises — a misnomer perhaps, given Black Adam‘s familiar failure to provide a villain commensurate in influence and/or intrigue. Either or would have been great. In this case, Sabbac (Marwan Kenzari), a feral beast who derives his bloodlust from Hell’s most powerful demons, pops up toward the end as if out of a Trey Parker/Matt Stone creation — the crude design not exactly doing favors for yet another generic power-monger. 

In culminating in a Pirates of the Caribbean-esque climax, a literal hell-on-earth sequence that sees legions of minions wreaking havoc on Kahndaq, Black Adam unfortunately hits a low point late, embracing the worst impulses of the superhero genre. However, the screen sludge that results is not enough to kill the joy of seeing Johnson rise to the occasion, nor the goodwill that the movie overall has built up to that point.

Nice threads

Moral of the Story: One of the better installments in the up-and-down DC Extended Universe, Black Adam mostly does its job with keeping the audience entertained with a lot of action and visual spectacle and balancing fun with some more serious themes of slavery and oppression. But unfortunately it is another superhero movie where the bad guy seems to be more or less forgotten about. Dwayne Johnson clearly takes his role seriously here, even if the portrayal (from what I understand) veers away from the comics version of the character. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 125 mins.

Quoted: “Yeah, Mom. Who do you want to teach me violence?”

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The Gray Man

Release: Friday, July 15, 2022 (limited) 

👀 Netflix

Written by: Joe Russo; Christopher Markus; Stephen McFeely

Directed by: Anthony Russo; Joe Russo

Starring: Ryan Gosling; Chris Evans; Ana de Armas; Regé-Jean Page; Julia Butters; Billy Bob Thornton; Alfre Woodard; Jessica Henwick

 

 

***/*****

Thinking is a hazard to your health in the modern action movie. The good news is when something moves as stylishly and as quickly as The Gray Man you don’t have a lot of time to do that. Distractions are in abundance in the Russo brothers’ star-studded and action-packed extravaganza based on the 2009 novel of the same name by Mark Greaney.

Featuring the ensemble cast of an Ocean’s Eleven and the globetrotting scale of a James Bond installment, The Gray Man is one of Netflix’s most expensive and ambitious undertakings to date, costing the streamer a whopping $200 million — and that’s just for this first episode, with plans for a sequel and a spin-off announced immediately. Sadly the foundation (the first movie, that is) isn’t very strong to begin with, so it’s anyone’s guess as to what quality franchise we’ll get out of translating more of the thriller novelist’s work.

In the meantime, what will likely be most remembered from this near-breathless first installment is Chris Evans hamming it up big-time as the main antagonist, the sadistic Lloyd Hansen. I’m prioritizing the villain because the pleasure he takes in making others uncomfortable is something that makes him stand out in a movie that doesn’t have much to offer personality-wise. It’s a showy if overcompensating depiction of sociopathy that suggests Evans wants to be as far removed from Cap’s shield as Daniel Radcliffe wants to be from Hogwarts. If there’s something The Gray Man does well, it’s providing a bad guy you can’t wait to see brought to his knees.

Ironically the “good” guy is less compelling, even if he is played by the enigmatic Ryan Gosling. In 2003 Court Gentry, a convicted killer, is visited in prison by a CIA official named Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) who tells him his sentence will be commuted in exchange for his cooperation with the agency in bringing down a national security threat. Court is to join the CIA’s clandestine Sierra program, where he will assume the code name ‘Six,’ because “007 was taken.” Years later, after a botched mission in Bangkok, Six comes into possession of a thumb drive which contains some secrets the CIA, namely the ambitious Denny Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page), would rather not let loose. So he goes rogue, sending the file to Prague where a trusted source (Alfre Woodard) will be able to decrypt it, while coming into the crosshairs of a rampaging Lloyd Hansen who will do anything to get a job done.

This includes kidnapping Fitzroy’s teenage daughter Claire (Julia Butters) for leverage in forcing her father to give the go-ahead to eliminate Six, leading to one of The Gray Man‘s stand-out action scenes aboard a cargo plane. Though fully aware of his disposability, he discovers that maybe not everyone is out to get him when he crosses paths with Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas), a CIA agent who, along with Carmichael’s underling Suzanna Brewer (Jessica Henwick), is scrambling to salvage her career thanks to the trail of destruction that has followed Hansen and his willfully unethical methods.

Piling up casualties as quickly as Thanos can snap his fingers, The Gray Man is hardly ever dull. The plot is simple and the direction propulsive but because we don’t really get to know the characters beyond their skill sets and job titles it is also a fairly impersonal affair, feeling more like a series of things that happen rather than things you care about. Attempts to humanize Gosling’s emotionally frigid Court come in the form of perfunctory flashbacks to a bad childhood and an underdeveloped dynamic with Claire, to whom he is entrusted to protect. On that note, Butters is even less fortunate, her character bearing few attributes beyond the heart condition that makes her vulnerable and serves as a plot device.

If the action genre is defined now by cold indifference, The Gray Man should be viewed as a success. The Russos have put together an adrenaline-pumping ride that doesn’t demand anything from the viewer other than a Netflix subscription and a family-sized bucket of popcorn. It may not feature any extraterrestrial threat or super-powered beings, but this is a spectacle involving some balloons, a lot of bullets, and colored smoke for some reason. The Gray Man looks every bit the money that was spent on it, but huge sums of cash don’t directly translate into strong characters and intriguing moral situations. I’m probably thinking too much about it, but this cat-and-mouse game could have — should have — been better.

For the second review in a row, we have strong Mustache representation.

Moral of the Story: I’m giving this otherwise pretty bland action thriller a 3 instead of a 2 out of 5 stars simply because Chris Evans chews the scenery so much he enlivens the entire thing. Gosling is okay; he’s not doing anything radically different, and even though there is a lot of action — the Russos definitely deliver quantity — I’m not sure if any of the big set pieces have staying power. Honestly, it’s just another Saturday night action escape. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 114 mins.

Quoted: “Normally at this point in the night, I wouldn’t be sticking around. With the house lights about to come on, I’d find a desperate, ugly chick to lick my wounds and split. But you have been a pebble in my shoe since the very beginning, and now I just don’t think I can walk away. Guess what I’m thinking right now . . .”

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The Adam Project

Release: Friday, March 11, 2022 (Netflix)

👀 Netflix

Written by: Jonathan Tropper; T.S. Nowlin; Jennifer Flackett; Mark Levin

Directed by: Shawn Levy

Starring: Ryan Reynolds; Zoe Saldaña; Mark Ruffalo; Catherine Keener; Jennifer Garner; Walker Scobell

 

 

 

**/*****

Shawn Levy’s sentimental time-traveling adventure The Adam Project is a Netflix “original” that stretches the term to its breaking point. The story it tells may be hopeful but from a creative standpoint it feels hopelessly generic.

The Adam Project revolves around the alluring idea of tinkering with the past in order to change an unpleasant future. Like Levy’s previous film, 2021’s Free Guy, the overall experience plays light on logic and heavy on the feels, except here the reliance upon deus ex machina is even more pronounced; this is time travel by way of Sterling Archer, a little more sober and polite perhaps, but no less farcical with the sheer number of things working out at just the right time, on the first try, on the last gasp of fuel.

Adam Reed (no, not that Adam Reed, but the one played by Ryan Reynolds) is a fighter pilot from the year 2050 who crash-lands in 2022 en route to 2018 where he hopes to find his missing wife, Laura (Zoe Saldaña). She’s gone back to terminate an Evil Future Woman from taking over a time traveling device and using it for her own vaguely nefarious purposes. Adam’s plan is complicated when he realizes he has conveniently landed at the very location of his old house, a quaint little pocket in the woods where he encounters his pre-teen self (Walker Scobell).

Less convenient are the circumstances into which he has accidentally plopped himself down. It’s been about a year since the sudden death of his father Louis (Mark Ruffalo), a brilliant scientist, and both young Adam and his mother Ellie (a disappointingly under-used Jennifer Garner) are coping in their own way, which for the former means giving the latter a really hard time and making her worry about his future. Older Adam, nursing a wounded leg and stressing over his wife’s fate, lacks the temperament to deal with his younger self’s so-called problems and his many questions.

Two-time Oscar-nominated Catherine Keener meanwhile has ditched teacup-tapping hypnosis for an admin position at some Skynet-adjacent tech conglomerate. As the movie’s big bad, Maya Sorian, Keener hardly gets to demonstrate her abilities. (Although her character does pull double duty, manifested in the future and past — the “past version” being a poor CGI approximation that makes Rogue One-era Peter Cushing look like the Rolls Royce of digital renderings.)

The Adam Project is a diverting, fantastical adventure that, in its nascent stages, teases something special. In the end, and after so much disaster effortlessly averted, the one thing it cannot escape is its lazy, written-by-committee feel. Moving from one plot beat to the next like a tourist scooted on along by an impatient guide going through the motions, the writers seem more interested in silly song placement than getting serious about the implications of what they have set up. The film is amiable, in large part due to the cast, but it is also forgettable — a creative sin the previous Levy/Reynolds collaboration managed to avoid committing, if barely.

“No gamma rays?”
“No gamma rays.”

Moral of the Story: Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are two names that never appear in The Adam Project, but they’re two names I could not get out of my head all throughout, from certain action sequences to the tonality of some conversations and the sentimentality that is laid on pretty thick. Not a bad movie by any means, but like so many Netflix “originals” there is a lot of potential that goes unfulfilled. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 97 mins.

Quoted: “I spent thirty years trying to get away from the me that was you and, I’ll tell you what, kid; I hate to say it, but you were the best part all along.”

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Red Notice

Release: Friday, November 5, 2021 (limited) 

👀 Netflix

Written by: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Directed by: Rawson Marshall Thurber 

Starring: Dwayne Johnson; Ryan Reynolds; Gal Gadot; Ritu Arya; Chris Diamantopoulos 

 

 

 

**/*****

A red notice is associated with something of very high value, such as an art thief of international notoriety. It’s what INTERPOL uses to identify and/or extradite highly wanted suspects. If you haven’t heard, there’s one out for writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber, who is guilty of making a very expensive heist comedy featuring Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot feel cheap and lazy.

Originality is not the issue, although (and with due respect) it never has been with Thurber, who has set his sights on pure escapism and is now a three-time Dwayne Johnson collaborator. As his filmography has shown he’s a guy who likes to rub shoulders with big-name talent. But I’m not sure he’s ever rested on the laurels of his cast quite in the way he does here. Red Notice is expensive but creatively bankrupt — a two-plus-hour conveyor belt of farcical episodes that are forgotten as soon as they happen, all capped off by one of the most asinine endings you’ve seen in a while.

As the Cliff’s Notes prologue establishes, thousands of years ago some dude named Marc Antony gifted three bejeweled eggs to the war-mongering Cleopatra as a wedding gift and a symbol of his “devotion.” Don’t worry too much about brushing up on your Ptolemaic history though; this thing is mostly just jokes and good-looking actors being captured in the perfect light. In the present day, an Egyptian billionaire thinks it would be neat if he replicated the symbolic gesture for his daughter on her wedding day. Whoever can recover all three eggs and deliver them on the big day will become a very rich man or woman indeed. 

The leading trio has certainly ensured their own personal wealth, commanding $20 million a head, but we as viewers (or armchair critics) aren’t exactly enriched by watching reheated performances from other, better movies. This is the kind of pablum that tends to cool even the hottest of Hollywood celebs. Reynolds and The Rock do alright with the odd-couple dynamic but their characters are paper thin. Gadot fares better and seems like the only one who’s trying to do something more fun with her enigmatic character The Bishop, less a femme fatale as a rogue in rouge.

Thurber, who may never set the world on fire, knows how to make a good time happen but Red Notice finds him struggling to make a $200 million production come to life. Though DP Markus Förderer injects some energy with the rinse-and-repeat FPV drone shots that link us to every important place — we start in a priceless museum in Rome, make a daring prison escape in Russia, crash a masquerade ball in Valencia and dig into the rich history of Argentina’s underground, Nazi-stuff-stashing tunnels — the temperature in every room, or outside of them for that matter, remains the same. There is no tension to any of the developments, no significant stakes. But if you are looking for an obnoxious Ed Sheeran cameo, boy do I have the movie for you. 

The Bishop and her pawn

Moral of the Story: I was actually looking forward to Red Notice when it was first announced. Those expectations weren’t anything wild, but I also was not anticipating something so machine-processed. So for me it’s hard to overlook even the minor flaws. I very much doubt I’ll be wasting my time on the two sequels that are soon coming. I’ve done pretty well avoiding most of the crap that floats around on Netflix but this time their cute little algorithm got me. Looks like I’m the chump. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 118 mins.

Quoted: “Do you know who I am? I was in The Game of Thrones! I’m Ed Sheeran, bitch!” 

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

Greenland

Release: Friday, December 18, 2020 (VOD)

👀 Amazon Prime 

Written by: Chris Sparling

Directed by: Ric Roman Waugh

Starring: Gerard Butler; Morena Baccarin; Roger Dale Floyd; David Denman; Hope Davis; Scott Glenn; a comet named Clark

Distributor: STXfilms 

 

 

 

***/*****

Downbeat disaster movie Greenland reunites star Gerard Butler with Angel Has Fallen director Ric Roman Waugh and for the second time running they’ve delivered solid if logically shaky entertainment. There’s clearly a synergy between these two for they will collaborate again on a Greenland sequel, a prospect that seems justified beyond the profit margin. 

A comet is coming to town and a bearded Butler has to get himself and his family to safety, or whatever around here passes for safety when it turns out the threat isn’t one cohesive object but rather a large group of fragments. What was supposed to be a spectacular near-earth passing witnessed on TV now has extinction level event written all over it. Comet forecasting isn’t an exact science but boy does the situation deteriorate quickly. Florida gets obliterated, and soon enough mass panic grips society.

Waugh’s doomsday thriller has a different, more serious thrust than something the likes of Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich might concoct. More concerned with what’s going on in people’s heads rather than what’s happening in the sky, Greenland imagines a scenario where one’s employment status determines whether they are invited to the apocalyptic afterparty. When Atlanta-based engineer John Garrity (Butler), his estranged wife Alison (Morena Baccarin) and son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd) are selected by the government for emergency sheltering, hope for safe passage is dashed by a pesky medical detail which prevents them from boarding a plane and thrusts them into the very chaos the patriarch’s shrewdly selected career path was about to spare them from.

As if navigating the collapse of society as a family isn’t scary enough — jet fuel, open gunfire and panicked mobs at Robbins Air Force Base make for a lethal combination — Chris Sparling’s screenplay further ratchets up the drama by scattering the Garritys across the map, splitting the time fairly evenly between the two camps. Butler in particular is impressive downplaying his action hero persona, convincing as an everyman who disgusts himself with the things he ends up doing in an attempt to reunite with his loved ones.

Meanwhile Alison hatches a plan to rendezvous back at her father (Scott Glenn)’s farmstead. Baccarin is rock-solid in the role, and if our sympathies aren’t already aligned with her — John’s presumably had an affair, something that’s only ever hinted at a couple of times throughout — they are wholly and completely when Nathan is imperiled by opportunists posing as Good Samaritans (David Denman and Hope Davis, both very good in their contributions to the Worst Of side of the humanitarian ledger).

Despite some serendipitous turns that force the plot to go where it needs to, Greenland maintains a level of gritty realism that feels rare for the genre and wrings fairly consistent tension from the often unpleasant exchanges between strangers. Even the grand finale is understated, the antithesis of Michael Bay. A select few moments of cheap-looking CGI confess to the modest ($35 million) budget, but for the most part the intimate scope creatively disguises those limitations.

Marginally worse than Black Friday at Wal-Mart

Moral of the Story: The anarchic, human angle and an atypical Gerard Butler performance make Greenland a pretty easy recommendation for fans of end-of-the-world thrillers. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 119 mins.

Quoted: “My friend Teddy says your life flashes in front of your eyes when you die. I think it would be better if it did that while you lived. That way, you could see all the good memories and be happy.”

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The Tomorrow War

Release: Friday, July 2, 2021 (Amazon Prime)

👀 Amazon Prime

Written by: Zach Dean

Directed by: Chris McKay

Starring: Chris Pratt; Sam Richardson; Yvonne Strahovski; Betty Gilpin; J.K. Simmons; Edwin Hodge

 

 

***/*****

The creatures at the center of Chris McKay’s fast-moving and action-packed sci-fi blockbuster are microcosmic of the overall experience of The Tomorrow War. You can’t take your eyes off them despite how familiar they are, an amalgam of iconic elements and concepts from bigger, more famous genre titles of years past.

It’s not looking good for us humble humans in the year 2051. The global population reduced to something in the hundreds of thousands, we’re well on our way to losing the war against the Whitespikes, a race of vicious creatures who look like some hybrid between H.R. Giger’s beloved Xenomorphs and the chaotic Mimics from Edge of Tomorrow (2014). In a last ditch effort, future people are time-traveling back to our reality to recruit citizens into the war effort because we regular Joes are literally the last line of defense. May as well cancel the sunrise at this point.

The gregarious Chris Pratt is our ticket in to experiencing this future hellscape for ourselves, charged with leading a platoon on what essentially amounts to a suicide mission into a world overrun with beasts that move with alarming agility and aggression and have this nasty tendency to shoot spikes from tentacled appendages. Pratt again proves to be a supportable hero though this time he disconnects more from his goofball persona to slip into the fatigues of career-depressed Dan Forester, a retired Green Beret now itching to retire from the grind of teaching high school biology to disinterested students.

Too ‘average’ to fit in at the Army Research Lab, Dan is handed (more like strong-armed into) an opportunity to fulfill a destiny, if not also risk his sanity. His number gets called and despite the protestations of his wife Emmy (Betty Gilpin — redeemed) whose experience as a therapist for returning survivors gives her a good idea of the best case scenario, he’s quickly on board for a one-week tour of duty in which the survival rate hovers at a miserable 30%. Those who do survive get beamed back to the present day from wherever they happen to be at the time. While a pre-jump exchange feels shortchanged between Dan and his estranged father James (a beefed-up J.K. Simmons), whose methods of dealing with his own PTSD have never sat right with his son, leaving behind his bright daughter Muri (a wonderful Ryan Kiera Armstrong) is the tear-jerking moment Zach Dean’s pedestrian screenplay flubs the most.

This brief snapshot of an average family life discarded with, we plunge headlong into the film proper, to the part everyone is anticipating. Blasting through the most hurried boot camp you’ve ever seen — mostly a loading platform where we pick up fellow goofball Sam Richardson as the nervous chatterbox Charlie and a dead-serious Edwin Hodge as Dorian, a jaded warrior on his third tour — we’re soon dumped unceremoniously onto the terrifying field, a visually stunning combo of war-ravaged metropolis, oceanic fortress and gorgeous locales both tropical and tundral. The future-world sets are the film’s best assets, a series of battlegrounds rendered both foreign and familiar and across which we rip on a death-defying mission to find the almighty toxin that can bring down these bastards once and for all.

In reaching for Interstellar-levels of wisdom director Chris McKay, in his first live-action feature film, misses the mark with only broad gestures toward its themes of redemption and familial sacrifice. After barely surviving Miami Beach and awakening in a military compound in the Dominican Republic Dan is brought face-to-face with a challenge greater than the physical ordeal. Australian actor Yvonne Strahovski ironically puts in the most emotional performance as the hardened Colonel Forester, who gives her trusted soldier plenty to think about à la Matthew McConaughey as his lonely little self slipped, preposterously, toward the singularity-cum-bookshelf.

Yes, almost by definition even the best sci fi are inherently ridiculous. Unfortunately The Tomorrow War lacks the emotional gravity and force of personality that can distract from overthinking. This is a blockbuster designed to keep your eyes busy and your analytical mind at bay. The film editors are key, masterfully sowing together the three major movements into one kinetic, fast-moving machine whose biggest malfunction is being forgettable pablum.

The Tomorrow War is likable, lively but ultimately shallow. However you could do a lot worse for an unwitting hero and for a piece of home entertainment. As yet another casualty of the COVID disruption, this two-hour wow-fest is found exclusively on Amazon Prime and is bound to rattle walls with its unrelenting energy.

“I’m court marshaling you for your Thanos-related antics. You really could have cost us, buddy.”

Moral of the Story: The living room may not be the ideal environment in which to take in a movie of such size and scale — The Tomorrow War is Amazon’s biggest film purchase ever, priced at an eye-popping $200 mil — but the convenience factor makes this derivative sci-fi yarn more attractive. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 138 mins. 

Quoted: “If there’s one thing that the world needs right now, it’s scientists. We cannot stop innovating. That’s how you solve a problem.” 

Check out the (really long) Final Trailer from Amazon Prime here!

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The Ice Road

Release: Sunday, June 25, 2021 (Netflix)

👀 Netflix

Written by: Jonathan Hensleigh

Directed by: Jonathan Hensleigh

Starring: Liam Neeson; Laurence Fishburne; Marcus Thomas; Amber Midthunder; Benjamin Walker

 

 

 

**/*****

Though Liam Neeson’s latest thriller The Ice Road may be out of season for those of us in the northern hemisphere, it lies smack in the middle of a prolific run the 69-year-old Irish actor has been enjoying the last decade-plus, marking one of three movies he will star in this year alone. Presumably it will also be the worst.

Written and directed by Jumanji (1995) and Armageddon (1998) scribe Jonathan Hensleigh, The Ice Road just may represent the nadir of Neeson’s post-Taken routine. Action titles such as Non-Stop (2014), Run All Night (2015), The Commuter (2018) and indeed the Taken sequels have all coasted on the goodwill of a built-in audience but few as shamelessly as The Ice Road, a bare-minimum effort with original ideas as commonplace as service stations out on the Canadian Prairies. Compounding the problem is some really questionable acting from supporting parts and a villain who becomes the Terminator in ways more comical than compelling.

Neeson blends into the environment just fine but his Mike McCann, a North Dakotan big rig driver, is nothing you’ll remember when all is said and done. Recently fired from his job having stood up for his PTSD-suffering brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas), he joins a highly dangerous mission to deliver crucial equipment from Winnipeg to a mine in Northern Manitoba that has collapsed after a methane explosion. The 20+ souls trapped inside are relying on this last-ditch effort before they run out of oxygen. Time is of the essence but the trek to get there is paved with hazards, many natural and others man-made.

Good old-fashioned subterfuge at the corporate level is the cliched dramatic destination to which the increasingly apathetic viewer is pulled. This is less an action thriller as it is a conspiracy snoozer involving blue-collar truckers and white-collar snakes (Benjamin Walker’s characterization as a risk assessor belies his apparent immortality). At the Katka mine, company suits (Matt McCoy and Bradley Sawatzky, both pretty bad at acting on evidence of this movie) attempt damage control through an omniscience that becomes increasingly cartoonish. 

The best stretch of The Ice Road is its first half, as we are pulled into an extreme environment that offers entertaining man-vs-nature conflict not seen in a Neeson flick since 2011’s The Grey. The physical and technical challenges are effectively communicated as the crew — Mike, Gurty, a Winnipeg trucker named Jim Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne) and the hot-headed Tantoo (Amber Midthunder) — battle variable ice conditions and all sorts of nuances the layperson would never think about. Apparently dashboard bobbleheads are more than purely decorative. However, as environmental factors take a backseat to the human treachery lying underneath, The Ice Road sacrifices its blue collar identity for woefully generic melodrama. None of it written or performed particularly convincingly. 

While it is refreshing to see Neeson take on a character who is not endowed with a mythical set of skills, one is left wishing that the guy could have at least been endowed with better lines and quite frankly, a better film overall. 

“I do not believe in chance. When I see three wellheads, three drivers, three trucks, I do not see coincidence. I see providence. I see purpose.”

Moral of the Story: Pushes the line, for me personally, in terms of what a fan should be willing to accept at a base-line level of entertainment when it comes to these kinds of slight action-thrillers. Goodwill isn’t in infinite supply. The above review may be harsh, largely a reflection of frustration over how I entered the film with low expectations and not having even those met. There’s nothing sinfully bad about it, but all added up The Ice Road is just too lazy to recommend when there are so many other, (even if slightly) better Neeson options. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 109 mins.

Check out the “slick” Official Trailer from Netflix here! 

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

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

Jungle Cruise

Release: Friday, July 30, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: Michael Green; Glenn Ficarra; John Requa

Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra

Starring: Dwayne Johnson; Emily Blunt; Jesse Plemons; Jack Whitehall; Paul Giamatti; Édgar Ramírez

 

 

***/*****

The long, predictable meanders of the river are more enjoyable when you’ve got a good crew to float with. Such is the case with Jungle Cruise, a family-friendly adventure deeply indebted to the charms of Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, playing a mismatched pair on a dangerous mission deep into the heart of the Amazon circa the early 1900s.

Jungle Cruise remains rooted in classic adventure tropes even as the whole kit-and-caboodle swings wide of classic status and despite the expensive, flashy CGI ballast. There’s a map, a hidden treasure, cursed conquistadors (the film at its most unfortunate, casting a slew of Latinx actors, most notably Édgar Ramírez, and extras in thankless background roles smothered in digital Disneymagic), a bad guy after the same treasure, and even a wisp of romance, although this proves to be about the only thing Johnson and Blunt fail at as a team. Less trope-y is the characterization of the aforementioned competition, Jesse Plemons in fine bizarre form as a largely submarine-bound German memorably seen consulting a swarm of bees on navigational strategy.

On strategy, helming this old-school-feeling rig is director Jaume Collet-Serra, who sets aside his more violent filmmaking tendencies in favor of a breezy, good-natured bit of escapism where the exploration (and exploitation) of character foibles and differences outweigh more tangible narrative concerns. The plot finds Blunt’s danger-courting, pants-wearing Dr. Lily Houghton traveling to the Brazilian jungle in search of a riverboat captain willing to take her and her brother MacGregor (a third-wheeling but really fun Jack Whitehall) to the secret location of the Tears of the Moon, a mythical tree whose incandescent pink petals she believes could change the course of modern medicine and, thus, her status amongst her peers who all too happily laugh a lady out of any serious discussion. Meanwhile, Plemons’ Prince Joachim is hoping to get there first, thinking it could change Germany’s fortunes in the Great War.

Johnson’s Frank Wolff, a down-on-his-luck river guide with more puns in the bank than dollar bills, is motivated to journey down the Mighty Amazon due to his increasing debt to port manager Nilo (a haggard-looking Paul Giamatti). Naturally, personalities and philosophies clash immediately and about as comically as MacGregor’s wardrobe choices do with the climate. Along the way a mutual respect for one another is eventually gained. However, trust turns out to be more of an uphill battle for the Houghtons, who understandably tire of Frank’s penchant for pranking. As it turns out, there is more to Frank than deception and a pet jaguar.

Jungle Cruise is the latest in a line of movies “inspired by” real theme park rides. Like the actual Disney World attraction itself, for maximum enjoyment it helps to not get too curious about how the machinations work. Once you look over the sides and see the rails guiding the thing along a lot of the fun tends to get lost. Jungle Cruise is a cash grab but there are certainly more cynical ones out there.

So quiet you can’t even hear the critics chirping

Moral of the Story: I’m not sure I should be admitting this, but I actually got to experience this movie in an empty theater. Much to my surprise, it didn’t make much of a difference. Jungle Cruise, like many a Marvel movie, just seems like it would play better to a packed house. And it probably still does. Yet it speaks to the charisma of the two leads that I had a good time anyway. Plus the beer probably didn’t hurt (Señor Krunkles IPA — pretty sweet, hoppy and fruity. Made for a great pairing.)  

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 127 mins.

Quoted: “I had a girlfriend once, she was cross-eyed. Didn’t work out. We could never see eye to eye!”

Check out the creepy-crawly jungle-brawly trailer here!

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

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

Glass

Release: Friday, January 18, 2019

→Theater

Written by: M. Night Shyamalan

Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan

All the pieces finally fall into place for M. Night Shyamalan and his long-gestating superhero trilogy with Glass, in part a direct sequel to 2017’s psychological thriller Split as well as a belated return to the awe-inspiring identity crisis established 19 years ago in Unbreakable. Glass is far from perfectly polished, but against all odds the third and final chapter not only justifies its own existence, it justifies everything leading up to it, notably the ending to the last installment.

For what it’s worth, Anya Taylor Joy wasn’t the only one being held captive that day. I was such a prisoner of the moment, convinced the writer/director had just written and directed himself into a corner he was at the same time being pressured into by modern industry trends. But this knee-jerk reaction failed to take into account that Shyamalan had wanted to expand upon ideas established in Unbreakable years ago but just couldn’t get a studio to bite on a Part 2. In fact Split‘s compellingly deranged anti-hero was extracted from a ditched subplot in Unbreakable and in (one of Shymalan’s favorite things) a twist of fate, that film, unlike its predecessor, was immediately embraced critically and commercially. And now here we are, at the end of the line — the culmination of what we should, I suppose, formally recognize as the Eastrail 177 Trilogy. Not a very sexy name, is it?

Glass technically begins three weeks after the conclusion of Split, reuniting us with David Dunn (Willis the Bruce) and his now-grown-but-still-believing son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), running a little Bruce Wayne-like operation in the back of David’s own private security firm, with Joseph keeping online tabs on the seedy activity taking place in the shadows of metro Philadelphia while his father “goes for walks,” physically immersing himself in those shadows, brushing up against — well, you know how it works. We first see The Overseer, as he’s now known amongst internet fanbases, taking down a punk with a mean-spirited YouTube channel, confronting him in his own house and overpowering him by some margin in a bit of gleeful fan service.

The story proper is set into motion when David and the notorious kidnapper Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) are escorted to a remote psychiatric facility after a skirmish that spills out into the streets. Even though David successfully frees a group of high school cheerleaders Kevin and his multiple personalities (a.k.a. “The Horde”) have chained up in a warehouse, not everyone views his vigilantism as being in the best interests of the public. Kevin’s behavior is much less defensible; why they are both punished equally here kind of defies reason, but then again airtight logic has never been one of Shyamalan’s superpowers as a writer. Regardless, the pair are going to be having a little chat with a Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), who specializes in a very specific kind of delusion. The “I believe I am a superhero” kind of specific.

This of course is the same facility housing David’s nemesis, Elijah Price/Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), who, despite his near-comatose appearance, is under the most severe scrutiny given his propensity for manipulation and deception. Dr. Staple’s job is to convince her patients that what they have been experiencing are merely complex coping mechanisms after having lived through trauma. Yet within the context of the entire saga, the character — less a human and more a plot device, granted — represents an evolution in perspective. Unbreakable posed the question of whether or not superheroes really walk among us and it did so by comparing the naivety of Joseph versus that of his father; the point of view was private, personal, highly contentious. In Glass that perspective is systematically denied. Instead this is about an institution that believes it has the ultimate perspective. As the woman in the white lab coat suggests, if superheroes are real why are there only three of them?

If you want dissenting opinions, you’ve come to the right place. I was really impressed with what Shyamalan was able to create on such a modest budget, funding the $20 million project himself. (I wonder what my life would be like if I had that amount to throw at one thing.) Budgetary constraints are on display everywhere: they explain why we are for a large portion of the film trapped more or less in a single room with a “field expert” who enjoys bludgeoning her patients (and us) with medical jargon and bureaucratese. They explain the incident in the parking lot, the pistol and the pothole — the latter representing a truly creative resolution for something we all saw coming. Yet I can’t say the low overhead necessarily enhances the experience, either; it’s never less than a nagging thought that the film might have gone a different direction with just a little more money behind it.

Whether that would have been a more satisfying direction is obviously speculative. Going out with a bigger bang might have been more visually gratifying, but it would also risk violating the code of understatement Shyamalan has remained faithful to. As it stands, there is a surprising amount of weight that accumulates at an emotional and psychological level, and it is still the performances that make the movie. In its closing moments the actors are reaching some pretty spectacular heights (Willis aside, I won’t dissent on that widely-held opinion). I maintain that Mr. Glass is up there with some of Jackson’s career-best work, he’s a tragic and complicated figure. Meanwhile, McAvoy somehow one-ups his previous effort in Split by embracing even more of The Horde. In the process he illuminates his internal pain and turmoil in ways we haven’t yet seen.

Despite several blemishes in the script (inept orderlies, anyone?) and the fact Shyamalan reaches for but never quite achieves profundity, Glass ultimately succeeds in bringing closure to a series and a unique set of characters. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest this is either a swan song or a magnum opus. It’s simply a compelling film chockfull with geeky references to comic book lore and the culture surrounding it, and it is arguably his best effort in nearly two decades.

“Do it! Say osteogenesis imperfecta one more time . . .!”

Recommendation: Glass isn’t the event film most comic book adaptations are compelled to become and that alone feels refreshing. Getting to see all three characters share the screen is exciting, with James McAvoy being a true stand-out. The story is absolutely steeped in the language of comic books (becoming super-meta at the end with certain characters observing how reality is merging with events depicted in the comics — a nice touch even if a bit silly), and yet I think there is plenty here to recommend to viewers who aren’t hardcore about collecting and reading comics.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 129 mins.

Quoted: “This was an origin story the whole time.”

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