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 

Distributor: Netflix

 

 

**/*****

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!” 

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

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.”

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

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

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!

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; 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

The Upside

Whoops, wrong poster. That’s my fault. Here we go:

Release: Friday, January 11, 2019

→Theater

Written by: Jon Hartmere 

Directed by: Neil Burger

I am an unapologetic fan of Kevin Hart. He’s the reason I stood in the line that never was for The Upside, an update of a hugely successful French film from 2011 that goes by several names: The Intouchables/Intouchables and Untouchable. Of course, the added bonus was Bryan Cranston starring opposite him and in the role that François Cluzet played in the original. I have to cop to my own ignorance here: I wasn’t even aware this was an American remake until I started seeing the vitriolic comments bemoaning Hollywood’s lack of imagination.

Well, in this case ignorance seems to be bliss with a capital B because while I laughed on a few occasions and generally enjoyed myself, in my heart of hearts I knew what I had just seen wasn’t very good. Yet since I have no reference here I really don’t know the scale of terribleness we are dealing with. (It should be noted that I have heard the name The Intouchables before, I just didn’t realize this film was a remake of that. Nor that the story was quite so universal — with Indian and Argentinian versions both released in 2016.) As a dramatic comedy based on true events, the American update neither packs a comedic nor dramatic punch — it’s a bowling lane with the safety barriers up, with the adapted screenplay by Jon Hartmere just reeking of unoriginality. Amiable, but safe.

Still, the upside here is I was right to use Kevin Hart as my motivation. He’s actually quite good, toning down his typically spasmodic antics to fit the part of Dell Scott (Omar Sy’s Driss Bassari in the French version), an ex-con who strikes up a most unlikely friendship with a wealthy aristocrat named Phillip Lecasse (Cranston), who has been left a quadriplegic after a paragliding accident. This is a genuine performance from Hart, who begins the film needing three signatures from prospective employers to prove to his parole officer he is making efforts to turn his life around.

Two are easily acquired with Dell making no attempt to conceal his lack of interest in actually getting hired, despite the fact his relationships with his son Anthony (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) and ex-girlfriend Latrice (Aja Naomi King) are in shambles. The third finds him “applying” for what he assumes is a janitorial position, albeit in the penthouse of a high rise deep in the heart of the city. Growing impatient while waiting to be seen by Phillip’s executive assistant Yvonne (Nicole Kidman) — he’s supposed to pick up his son from school, you see — Dell jumps the line of interviewees and forces an awkward introduction, to which a wheelchair-bound Phillip responds positively, amused by his brashness. Dell’s got the job, if he wants it — this to the dismay of Yvonne who knows categorically this presently homeless man isn’t cut out for it.

The Upside is, presumably like its forebears, about breaking through those racial/economic barriers, crossing the street to see life from a different perspective. If the French film was criticized for handling such themes and ideas with kid gloves, The Upside is getting excoriated for bashing us over the head with them: THEMES! RECOGNIZE THEM! For Dell it is also a fight-or-flight situation as he soon learns that the position he’s ambivalent about accepting is about as far removed from the custodial arts (shout-out to Dave Chapelle!) as one can get. He’s to become a “life auxiliary,” a responsibility that will require round-the-clock care of Phillip, including daily catheterizing and other private matters. Initially he chafes against the strict rules governing his new role. Yet, the movie must continue on, in spite of Yvonne’s Three Strike rule.

Billed as the first true feel-good film of the New Year, The Upside is content with strolling down the most obvious, predictable avenues in all of Manhattan. There is nary a scene or character arc that surprises. Some of the writing is Razzie-worthy (Golshifteh Farahani being saddled with one of the worst lines of dialogue I’ve heard in this young year). Hart and Cranston are indeed the bright spots, while Kidman manages a level of empathy as the third-wheel who eventually warms up to Dell — his, shall we say untraditional approach to being a live-in caretaker proving to be more liberating to Phillip’s state of mind than could have ever been expected.

The Upside imparts wisdom that’s forgotten as soon as the credits roll, though I can’t quite bring myself to say I regret seeing this. Sometimes it’s the company we keep in these ultra-generic movies that can make a difference. And Hart and Cranston, who clearly enjoy one another’s company on set, make that difference here.

Recommendation: 88% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. There is no getting around how disposable Neil Burger’s The Upside is, but I really liked how predictably good its leading men are. Needless to say, if you’ve seen the original version you probably will leave this thing rather exasperated. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 126 mins.

Quoted: “I’m sorry you gotta have a surprise party in your huge mansion. Some of us have real problems. I’m fighting to see my son.”

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

Aquaman

Release: Friday, December 21, 2018

→Theater

Written by: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick; Will Beall

Directed by: James Wan

Four weeks on and the box office still hasn’t dried up for DC’s latest superhero origins story, the rise of one Arthur Curry, a.k.a. the Aquaman. Director James Wan has kinda done the unthinkable (not to mention given his bosses a nice Christmas present) by making a boatload of money — cracking the $1 billion mark this past weekend — with a movie that could not be more out of season. To me, a title like Aquaman screams summer blockbuster. Yet here we are in January, teeth chattering, talking about the highest-grossing DCEU film to date and the fifth-highest grossing film of 2018. Apparently, the fact that half the world still has months to go before they even start thinking about getting their beach bods back hasn’t been a factor.

Its release window isn’t the only thing whacky about Aquaman, a largely underwater-set action extravaganza starring Game of Thrones‘ Jason Momoa as the amphibious half-breed. Wan goes big on the special effects (as he always has, now just with more CGI pizzazz, and damn does this become a pretty thing to look at) but he goes pretty much all-out in trying to restore a little dignity to DC, proving his new employers aren’t nihilists obsessed with suffering. Aquaman embraces the absurdity inherent in its very existence, both in dialogue and in action, winking-and-nudging at the audience at every opportune moment — especially during those where bad guys are seen riding on souped-up seahorses, talking of uniting the Seven Seas and mounting an insurrection against those godless land-living creatures.

Aquaman certainly plays the part of a commercial-friendly summer winter blockbuster in terms of delivering big action spectacle, pounding the pavement immediately with an opening confrontation before moving on to successively bigger (and increasingly ridiculous) stand-offs that are as grand in scale as anything we have come across in the DCEU. If it isn’t Leviathan size, it’s the over-the-top masculinity of the combat scenes and the objects that are incorporated into them that make them larger than life — at one point I do believe the Fishboy can be seen conking an opponent on the noggin with the head of a missile. The fights are actually fairly clean — choreographically and just plain graphically — but what truly sets Aquaman apart in this regard is the exoticness of the locations, with half of the action taking place in ornate, gorgeously rendered submarine worlds where light refracts and splinters into shards of pale yellows and greens.

But (and here is the part where I expect to get laughed at) perhaps what is most unexpected from a DC film is the depth of the story, and I mean beyond the eyeball-popping pressures of the ocean bottom and gratuitous Amber Heard cleavage. (She plays Princess Mera, and aside from the predictably revealing outfits, this is probably her best role in years.) The thrust of the narrative concerns ideas of unity and cooperation and that works on scales both large and small. While the superhero thread follows the title character’s eventual acceptance of his status as a powerful leader, one who’s prophesied to bridge the two worlds (the land and the sea), the more human side finds Arthur struggling to come to terms with the consequences of his birth and the sacrifice his mother made in the interest of keeping her family safe.

As the mythology goes, Arthur is conceived out of a deep love between a human lighthouse keeper, Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison) and Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), the Queen of Atlantis, a once surface-level sovereignty now damned to the oceanic depths after a catastrophic meteor strike. As that opening fight scene reveals, Atlanna isn’t quite human. Her actions — falling in love with and marrying a human man with whom she conceives a child, who will possess the ability to communicate with all marine lifeforms — have made her a traitor to the people of Atlantis, and have earned the intense ire of Orm (Patrick Wilson), her other son and the current ruler of the aquatic civilization.

When Arthur comes of age and learns about his powers — fine-tuned with the guidance of trusted confidante Vulko (Willem Dafoe), also a ‘scientific advisor’ to King Orm — and what he represents to both sides, he of course does the very un-superheroic thing and hides away from the world, rejecting Atlantis and the very notion he can be a savior to all, including his own family. He isn’t entirely incapable of doing good deeds, as we observe in an early scene where he saves a gaggle of sailors from a Russian sub hijacking. In the process he also makes an enemy in David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), whose father Arthur mercilessly leaves to drown. Whoops.

Enter Princess Mera, who, despite this being the guy who actually defeated Steppenwolfe, begrudgingly convinces Arthur to return to Atlantis and face his half-brother, who has set his sights on the destruction of the surface world. Heard and Momoa share a playfully antagonistic chemistry that helps Aquaman stay afloat through its most silly moments. And while we’re on the subject, it is very awkward the way Wan crowbars in commentary on oceanic pollution in a film that really doesn’t want nor need to be taken seriously — that’s a reality that does need to be taken seriously, and inserting it here is more than corny, it’s disingenuous. As they embark on a globetrotting adventure to track down the Trident of Atlan, a powerful artifact that only the worthiest of Ocean Masters can wield, we endure the scorching heat of the Sahara Desert and then hop on over to the Italian isle of Sicily, experiencing setbacks (hello, Black Manta!) and personal revelations along the way.

Despite the patently absurd final battle and a few other sidebar items, at its core this is a family affair, with Arthur and Orm diametrically opposed in ideology yet almost one and the same in terms of conviction and what they are willing to sacrifice to win. Ultimately it is in Arthur’s longing for his parents to be together once more where Aquaman becomes arguably every bit the emotional journey as Diana Prince’s loss of innocence as depicted in Wonder Woman. His inner turmoil, expressed by a quite natural and earnest Momoa, help me more easily overlook the clunky narrative at-large, the predictable writing (who didn’t see that epic under-water kiss coming?) and cheesy dialogue: “Redheads, gotta love ’em!” [proceeds to throw self out of plane while a caged goat bleats in horror.]

Yes, Aquaman is conceptually whacky, narratively clunky and overly reliant on CGI on more than one occasion. But the numbers don’t lie. This movie is a crowd-pleasing good time that ticks the biggest Superhero Blockbuster box of all — prioritizing fun and escapist entertainment above all. Against many odds, Aquaman is a DCEU installment that swims far more than it sinks.

My trident is cooler than your trident.

Recommendation: This movie has been out for nearly five weeks as of this writing. You’ve either seen it or aren’t going to. Not much more I can really say here. (Oh, there is this: if you’ve wondered whatever happened to James Wan’s partner-in-heinous-crime from the Saw days, Leigh Whannell apparently appears as a cargo pilot in this film — which I find hilarious. The trajectories of these two filmmakers have been quite incomparable.)

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 143 mins.

Quoted: “What are we doing?”

“Hiding inside a whale. I got this from Pinocchio!”

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

The Girl in the Spider’s Web

Release: Friday, November 9, 2018 

→Theater

Written by: Jay Basu, Fede Álvarez; Steven Knight

Directed by: Fede Álvarez

2018 has been a productive year for Claire Foy, star of Fede Álvarez’s gritty, Scandinavian-set crime thriller The Girl in the Spider’s Web. In the span of nine months the British actress, perhaps most recognized as Queen Elizabeth II in Netflix’s critically-acclaimed drama series The Crown, has not only appeared but starred in three films, two of which were major studio productions. In March we saw her come undone at the seams in Steven Soderbergh’s iPhone-shot, psychological thriller Unsane, and just last month embody resilience as Janet Armstrong, wife of astronaut Neil Armstrong, in Damien Chazelle’s First Man. With Spider’s Web she proves she can take a life as ruthlessly as anyone. (Or, you know, spare it too. But we know better, this Girl isn’t big on compassion.)

Seven years after David Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first installment in Swedish novelist Stieg Larsson’s so-called Millennium Series, and it’s out with Rooney Mara and in with Claire Foy as Lisbeth (that’s a silent ‘h’) Salander, a steely-nerved spy/computer hacker and brutal dispatcher of men “who hurt women,” a vigilante who bears the scars of her own abusive history. It’s also out with Daniel Craig as journalist Mikael Blomkvist and in with someone else, but I’ll get to that later . . . maybe.

Even more confusingly, unless you’ve done your homework and actually seen the Swedish films adapted from each of the original three books, this belated follow-up pursues a narrative that technically kicks off a second “trilogy,” one authored not by Larsson but by David Lagercrantz, who was granted rights for continuity after the original author passed away suddenly in 2004. Lagercrantz’s first contribution to the series details Salander’s bloody dealings with cyber-terrorists and corrupt government officials alike as she attempts to recover and destroy a doomsday program created by a man named Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant). Along the way, Lisbeth must also deal with a past that comes back to bite her. Like a . . . like a spider.

First things first. Foy is enough to get you caught up in Spider’s Web. She takes a pedestrian thriller and punches it up with a physically bruising performance. Even if Foy is inheriting a lot of the character simply by sitting in a make-up chair — that jet-black hair and shoulder/back tat are definite and transformative trademarks — she plays emotionally detached quite well, her line delivery clipped in a manner that’s brittle and harsh, almost robotic. She perpetuates the tragic, enigmatic aura surrounding the character while delivering a number of harsh blows to her big-bodied opponents.

The story itself isn’t quite as distinguished. Spider’s Web is a pretty formal action flick that hinges upon a macguffin and its being kept out of the wrong hands. Who are the wrong hands exactly? Well, they call themselves The Spiders, which isn’t a very interesting name even if it is conceptually appropriate. Led by Claes Bang’s intimidating Holtser, they’re a shady organization to whom Lisbeth may or may not have a personal connection. Meanwhile, a child savant (Christopher Convery) proves just as crucial to the mission objective as a certain femme fatale (Silvia Hoeks, good but a plain Jane villain compared to her Luv in the Blade Runner sequel). The boy’s affinity for numbers and patterns just might help forward The Spiders’ nefarious agenda. Further complicating matters is corrupt deputy director of Swedish security Gabrielle Grane (Norwegian actress Synnøve Macody Lund).

Lisbeth may be a capable heroine, but she will also need more help than her computer hacking skills to combat her foes this time. Aiding in the quest is the return of the aforementioned and new-look Michael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason), and hacking friend Plague (Cameron Britton). And for contrast’s sake, we even get an American in on the action in the form of Lakeith Stanfield‘s NSA security agent Edwin Needham. His motives may be guided more by plot than professional objectivity but Stanfield is a good actor and watching him round out the numbers for Team Salander is undeniably fun.

Álvarez, whose previous film (the mainstream-unfriendly Don’t Breathe) is distinguished for his directorial creativity, certainly isn’t as inspired here even with $43 million to throw around. But Spider’s Web‘s lack of chutzpah might not be entirely on his shoulders, considering the material he’s adapting isn’t quite as politically and intellectually charged as what came before. With the passing of the baton from Larsson to Lagercrantz came a (so I’m told, fairly radical) change of style, the latter doubling down on pulpier action. As has already been proven, Álvarez is adept at spiking the adrenaline, whether that’s an early scene where the girl with a black Ducati vroom-vrooms away in the nick of time across a sliver of ice or a big set piece involving a movable bridge helps her evade capture for just another minute.

Spider’s Web is a classic case of style over substance, Foy’s uniquely restrained performance defiant in the face of all that generic cybercrime stuff. In the end it proves to be a competent action flick but it lacks the depth, both in terms of world-building and what we come to learn about the character itself, to truly qualify as a so-called “new Dragon Tattoo story.”

“Ugh. Get a room you two. . .”

Recommendation: Your fairly standard action romp elevated by a strong central performance and an appropriately icy setting. Fans of the actress are encouraged to apply while fans of Larsson’s original books might want to take a rain check. Dragon Tattoo 2.0 this ain’t.  

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “Are you not Lisbeth Salander, the righter of wrongs? The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? The girl who hurts men who hurt women?”

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

Assassin’s Creed

assassins-creed-movie-poster

Release: Wednesday, December 21, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Michael Lesslie; Adam Cooper; Bill Collage

Directed by: Justin Kurzel

Assassin’s Creed is simply not interesting enough for those who never played the game. You might fairly ask me why I would choose to sit through a movie based on a video game I never played. Um, I was expecting the acting pedigree behind the film’s trio of stars to carry more weight. Or for acting to matter at all in the film. I was hoping I could use what I learned here as a springboard for me getting into the games later. Here’s the best advice I can offer to those in a similar position: don’t do that.

I DON’T HAVE A CREED, SORRY

Everything is going to be okay, despite what Rotten Tomatoes says (yikes). I wonder how seriously game enthusiasts take film critics when they review game adaptations. Like recent releases inspired by gaming phenomena — Warcraft, Resident EvilMortal Kombat — the film has a substantial enough built-in fan base that will ensure a sequel or three will get the green light. So if you actually use the tomatometer as a measuring stick for what you want to watch, you might take a close look at how audiences are responding instead of reading my list of grievances against a pretty dull film.

The film doesn’t completely alienate the outsider, but it hardly gives you a warm fuzzy. Director Justin Kurzel’s reverence for the game’s well-established, sophisticated lore is apparent. We are effortlessly transported to a quasi-romantic/dystopian universe, one split between 15th-Century Spain and an hyper-stylized approximation of the present day. The film’s gorgeous in its steely griminess, a wardrobe tailored to the actors’ shape while remaining faithful to the ornate designs of the source material’s costumes. Assassin’s Creed clings to this façade with desperation, a large portion of the footage dedicated to overemphasizing said wardrobe. And an onslaught of skywards shots of our heroes parkouring the hell out of a city is presumably intended to invoke the sensation of being involved in this mission.

The narrative draws upon the mythos established in the original game, now a decade old, but instead of retracing familiar steps for those who have long been in control of Desmond Miles’ destiny, it opts for an origins story involving a completely new avatar. And while much of the film succumbs to the same issue that plagues many a video game adaptation — a confused or uninteresting point of view that just leaves viewers cold — at least the action scenes, particularly the furious hand-to-hand combat sequences, make an attempt to include the  average paying customer (the APC*).

Assassin’s Creed introduces everyone to Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender), a career criminal who at the start of the film is preparing to be executed. Then he “wakes up” in what seems to be . . . um, Heaven’s waiting room? No, that can’t be right; capital murderers don’t get a pass. So this is Hell’s foyer, then? Wrong again. This is actually a sterile room within a remote Abstergo Industries facility, a modern manifestation of an ancient underground society known as the Templar Order. Callum is first greeted by a scientist named Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard), the daughter of visionary Abstergo CEO Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons), who proceeds to inundate Callum with a few orientation materials. Like letting him know that he no longer exists in the world. That he is about to be repurposed.

SOME PHILOSOPHICAL SHIT

In 2007 Ubisoft engineered a stealth adventure for the thinking gamer. I can appreciate their popularity as these games have been able to separate themselves by blending heady science fiction with historical settings and events. Unfortunately the complexities pose a problem from a cinematic storytelling perspective. The task falls upon Cotillard to shoulder an encyclopedia’s worth of exposition because, let’s face it: there’s just too much world-building to be done beyond the physical, and no one is going to sit through a three-hour long movie based on a video game. Cotillard does what she can, but there’s only so much a great actor can do with such clunky, uninspired writing.

Through one of Sophia’s many monotonous monologues he learns he has assassin’s blood in his veins, and that one of his ancestors was Aguilar de Nerha, a noted assassin during the Spanish Inquisition who had for years been in pursuit of the Apple of Eden. This apple is not so much a fruit as it is a piece of technology that contains man’s original sin. It also possesses the very fabric of free will itself. (The more I write the stupider it all sounds, which is the very phenomenon that occurs the more these people talk.) Across centuries these assassins have had to contend with the Templars who don’t share their views on the future of mankind. While the Templars believe global peace is achievable, albeit only through control, assassins hold that man’s free will is a gift that cannot be touched or tampered with. On paper, all of this sounds like some pretty fascinating, philosophical shit, doesn’t it?

On screen, however, very little of said philosophical shit translates enthusiastically. Or creatively. The film looks great but the whole thing concludes in the same numbing state in which it began. If you’ve made the mistake of coming to the picture for the acting, prepare yourself for Fassbender’s first on-screen performance following the lobotomy none of us knew he had. Yes the action scenes are good, but everything else is so disappointing it seems almost farcical.

Assassin’s Creed stunningly wastes an opportunity to present an intellectually stimulating, challenging cinematic excursion. There’s a fixation on the god complex that is just begging to be explored in greater depth. The assassins we see early in the film prove their unwavering test of devotion via blood sacrifice. Callum’s body being manipulated by The Animus — a giant mechanical contraption that has undergone some physical alterations so the film, supposedly, avoids comparisons to The Matrix‘s own psychosomatic technology — often finds the character in Christ-like poses as he soars into the air and flails around. The script also tends to harp on the phrase “man’s first disobedience.” And Rikkin’s ambitions of uniting mankind under his thumb, well. That’s pretty obvious.

For all of the obsession with sinning and human imperfection the irony of how Kurzel and company have themselves ended up committing one of filmmaking’s greatest sins by producing one of the year’s most disappointing and boring movies becomes painful. I don’t know. Maybe I just need some secret codes or something.

* Synonyms include (but are not limited to) ‘loser,’ ‘heathen’ and ‘deplorable.’ 

michael-fassbender-in-assassins-creed

2-5Recommendation: Disappointing video game adaptation squanders the massive talents of its leading trio in Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Irons. Of course, this film could have gotten by with some average performances if the story were presented more compellingly. The longer the film went on, the sillier it all seemed. Damn it, this should have been really good. I am so bummed out and I haven’t ever played the games. I still might, though. These universes are just too cool to ignore. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 136 mins.

Quoted: “We work in the dark to serve the light. We are assassins.”

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