Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Release: Friday, May 31, 2019

→Theater

Written by: Zach Shields; Michael Dougherty 

Directed by: Michael Dougherty 

The sequel to Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (2014) is undeniably a different beast, dispensing with its predecessor’s drip-fed action and methodical pacing for more direct, adrenaline-spiking payoff. Edwards had his chance to thrill us and apparently he botched it so in steps Michael Dougherty, the dude who gave us the anti-Santa horror-comedy Krampus. He offers himself up to fans as a most humbled servant, giving the world’s most famous kaiju a few new friends to hang out with, effectively creating a much bigger spectacle that puts primal, brutal showdowns front-and-center.

King of the Monsters may not make any move bolder than killing off its presumed main characters within the first fifteen minutes, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have big things in store. Over the course of an indulgent two-and-a-half hours Dougherty sends us on a visually spectacular journey from the plush greens of the Yunnan rainforest to the blinding white of the Antarctic Circle, establishing the monstrous battles for supremacy against a backdrop of environmental apocalypse and human hubris — precisely the kind of thematic posturing you’d expect from a movie about a creature born of the nuclear age.

From an action standpoint King of the Monsters absolutely lives up to its title, presenting a series of city-leveling confrontations as an epic territorial dispute wherein we lowly humans are caught on both sides of an ideological divide: Do we attempt to force our hand or do we let Mother Nature run her course? The film features several of the classic Toho creations and captures them using all the bells and whistles of breathtaking modern CGI. Behold the luminescent beauty and grace of Mothra as she unfurls her wings; the screaming intensity of the volcanic-born predator Rodan; the sickening size and freaky three-headedness of “Monster Zero” (King Ghidorah, if you prefer) — the latter serving as the film’s primary villain and fulfilling his classic role as arch-nemesis of Godzilla.

King of the Monsters inherits its predecessor’s human problem but that component of the story is slightly more involving this time around, even if the characterization is again pretty generic. But let’s be reasonable here, it’s nothing if not par the summer blockbuster course and it’s certainly not pre-2000 Godzilla, where Roland Emmerich had us all on pins and needles wondering whether anyone would actually pronounce Matthew Broderick’s character’s name correctly. An ecoterrorist named Alan Jonah (Charles Dance) despairs at the overpopulation crisis and humanity’s wanton disregard for their environment and so endeavors to return the planet to a “more natural” state. On a collision course with his special brand of crazy are the Russells, a science-minded family who have helped the secretive government agency Monarch develop technology used to measure the activity of the many known “titans” across the globe, technology Mr. Jonah seeks for his own nefarious agenda.

Stranger Things‘ Millie Bobby Brown may only be 15 years old but in her big-screen début she stands out among her more experienced co-stars, particularly a tired-looking Kyle Chandler and an uncharacteristically unconvincing Vera Farmiga who play her parents now separated after the loss of their younger child. At least their anti-kaiju stance advances the modern narrative in a way that’s believable. They are remnants of a world that didn’t quite know how to negotiate a 390-foot-tall, upright-walking reptile who also spits nuclear radiation. A world that didn’t really understand what his relationship was to us, what his purpose was.

Brown’s Madison convincingly bridges those eras. She doesn’t share her parents’ hatred for the big guy. Her compassion proves an evolution of understanding. With her mother held hostage physically and ideologically by Mr. Jonah she emerges as one of the few voices of reason in a world gone mad. Well it’s her and Ken Watanabe, who reprises his role as Monarch scientist Dr. Ishiro Serizawa. As one of the elite few Japanese actors who got to take part in these big American event films, it’s about damn time he gets more of a say in these matters, his arc not only emotionally resonant but vital to the story.

King of the Monsters is an old-school-feeling, globetrotting smashing adventure that prioritizes big time fun over mood and pathos — kinda the opposite of Godzilla of five years ago. Not that that movie wasn’t entertaining, of course. I miss the discipline Edwards showed in building up to that incredible, vertical-panning shot that gave us our first good look at the main star. I miss that raw power of adrenaline. The sequel, however, offers its own excitement. The action is revved up to more crowd-pleasing levels, while the sheer amount of effort poured into the creature design and indeed the fights justifies the price of admission, whether that’s the sound engineers edging Godzilla’s roar closer to the original 1954 sound, or Dougherty urging his visual effects team, led by Guillaume Rocheron, to really imbue the creatures with their innate animal-like behaviors and physical traits — Ghidorah memorable for not just having three heads but those heads each moving independently like cobras waiting to strike.

King Ghidorah, and indeed King of the Monsters overall, makes a fairly strong case for bigger (and more) being better. It left me eagerly awaiting what comes next and in my opinion that’s what a good movie, a good second chapter, should do.

“Count your blessings. Your lines are better than mine.”

Recommendation: If you haven’t seen this movie yet, don’t be a nunce like me and miss the end credits! (Is this movie still even playing theatrically?) 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 132 mins.

Quoted: “Goodbye, old friend.” 

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 

Month in Review: August ’18

To encourage a bit more variety in my blogging posts and to help distance this site from the one of old, I’m installing this monthly post where I summarize the previous month’s activity in a wraparound that will hopefully give people the chance to go back and find stuff they might have missed, as well as keep them apprised of any changes or news that happened that month.

Why am I already posting another one of these things? I feel like I was just putting on my swim shorts and now you’re telling me I gotta change back to long pants? I didn’t even get to go in the pool! The end of summer is both bad and good for us Brits. Bad because winter means the same thing in every language and every dialect: it means shit weather is on the way. But it’s good because, well, to be completely open about this — given our delicate complexion, we tend to skip the tanning phase and go straight to burning, and this summer has been prime roasting season for Redcoats such as myself.

In keeping with this theme, let’s see what films have been burning up my screen this summer, and which elite few I managed to review on Thomas J for the month of August.


New Posts

New Releases: Three Identical Strangers; The Meg; Alpha

Other posts: 30 for 30: Mike and the Mad Dog


Recent Re-watches and Something “New”

Interstellar (review here) — this film stands taller and taller in the Christopher Nolan pantheon each time I go back to it. Three nights running, I volunteered myself back into space and away from everything I knew and loved. I still can’t quite get over the cheesiness of this notion of love transcending all dimensions — including time — yet the film overall has indeed improved. And the score for this movie is so hauntingly beautiful. I think that is my favorite part of the whole experience.

Jurassic World (review here) — consumed in two sittings over the course of two nights, I came to the realization that my initial review of this rig was a little on the harsh side. Ultimately I decided I can live with much of what Colin Trevorrow offered, especially visually. Barring a Bryce Dallas Awful here and a Chris Pratt there, more of this was enjoyable than I ever gave it credit for. The dinos more or less held up their end of the deal, but it was the human element that felt like a major missed opportunity. With the former it is a painful irony; the daughter of one of my favorite directors (Ron Howard) is simply an incompetent actor, perhaps more so than her character is an incompetent aunt. I understood the corporate angle they were going for here but man, talk about a lack of subtlety. Meanwhile, charming as Pratt is, he isn’t good enough to make raptor whispering not seem like the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard of. Jurassic World isn’t quite the abortion my review suggested it was, but combined with its far too tread-watery plot it just isn’t very good. Put another way, it isn’t enough to make me want to watch what comes after. At this point I am happy to keep my experiences limited to the “original trilogy.”

A Bit of Fry and Laurie (1987-1995) — how I managed to let this brilliantly inventive sketch show get by me for so long I do not know. This might literally be the funniest and most bizarre thing I have ever watched. The show’s namesake stars Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie are peanut butter and silly jelly together. Given my affinity for wordplay and obnoxiously colorful language, this show has really struck a chord with me. Here is a sampler for those curious, one of my favorite “bits:”


Around the Blogosphere

You’ve gotta check out who Keith (of Keith and the Movies) got to hang out with in Little Rock during Filmland 2018, a four-day event put together by the Arkansas Cinema Society featuring a variety of panels and screenings all working together to support local artists and their filmmaking passions. This sounded like a very exciting and enriching experience that I need to have for myself.

Horror-centric blog and a Thomas J favorite The Missing Reel has recently undergone a beautiful site overhaul, with Ryan securing a badass new graphic design courtesy of Jérémy Pailler. The site already looked good. Now it looks even better. Give it a look here!

An old friend of DSB/Thomas J returns, as Elina from the wonderfully named Films & Coke has come back after a long hiatus. If you’re new to her site, please do hop on over and check it out!


Ear bug of the moment: ‘All Eyes on You,’ St. Lucia

Alpha

Release: Friday, August 17, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt

Directed by: Albert Hughes

As the dog days of summer are finally upon us, you might consider taking a walk somewhat off the beaten path by checking out Albert Hughes’ Alpha. A prehistoric epic adventure set 20,000 years ago in unrecognizable Europe, it offers a tale of suffering, survival and unexpected alliances, chronicling a young boy’s harrowing journey back home and the help he receives along the way after he becomes separated from his tribe.

Visually hypnotic, lavishly costumed and boasting a rich, ambient sound design, Alpha represents something of a dying breed of cinema when it comes to its more technical aspects. It feels far more like an artifact from a long forgotten period than a movie released in 2018. The last ice age as a setting — as much a mystical concept as it was an actual reality — reminds us of how nice it is to get away from civilization for awhile. Hughes harnesses the sheer scale of this brave new world in a few breathtaking shots of the British Columbian landscapes (a great substitute for paleolithic Europe) before homing in on a more specific purpose: what conditions might have precipitated this profound and unshakable bond we now share with dogs?

Despite its PG rating, Alpha traverses some pretty harsh terrain. Eons ago the world was a more natural place but also more hostile. Lifespans were generally characterized as short and brutal. We get a sense of all of that in this film, though the camera tidies themes up a bit by keeping most of the grisly details out of frame. Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Keda, a teenager with a lot to live up to being the son of tribal chief Tau (Game of Thrones‘ Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson). The epically bearded Icelandic actor imbues him as a demanding leader but also as a deeply loving father.

He is to lead his equally epically-bearded cadre of hunter-gatherers on an annual expedition to bulk up on food supplies for the coming winter. Throughout the early stages they frequently reference “the great beast.” Chief Tau insists it is Keda’s time to learn the ways of his people, while Rho (Norwegian model and actress Natassia Malthe) is less convinced of her son’s preparedness. Keda takes his initiation beating all the same — as if this custom can actually prepare him for the physical ordeals he is about to endure over the course of several grueling months.

Alpha charts a path through the vast and spectacular wilderness so easy to follow no amount of snowdrift will disorient you. Given its economic narrative, there isn’t much room for depth and nuance beyond the broad strokes of demonstrative acting. There isn’t a great deal of personality to the human characters but Smit-McPhee manages to impress in a quiet, unpretentious capacity. Like the punishing elements that surround him, he feels natural, authentic — especially in moments of peril. The authenticity goes beyond the visual. Alpha even touts its own language, with linguistic anthropologist Christine Shreyer tasked with approximating the kinds of sounds these very early people might have used to communicate.

Of course, Alpha won’t set the world on fire. It is effective for what it is — perhaps even powerful given its ostensibly restrictive MPAA rating — but I won’t hold any pretense this historical drama will siphon off even a modest chunk of the steadily superhero fatiguing public. And that is regrettable given how refreshing Alpha often feels.

Recommendation: To some extent Alpha feels like a more sanitized version of The Revenant, and while that might sound like damning with faint praise again I reiterate its PG rating. It is quite impressive what the film is able to do within those confines. And speaking of limitations, the other thing I really like about Alpha is that “epic adventure” is not a misnomer. It is indeed that, only captured in 96 quite fleeting minutes. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 96 mins.

Quoted: “Pain will journey with us.”

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

Month in Review: July ’18

To encourage a bit more variety in my blogging posts and to help distance this site from the one of old, I’m installing this monthly post where I summarize the previous month’s activity in a wraparound that will hopefully give people the chance to go back and find stuff they might have missed, as well as keep them apprised of any changes or news that happened that month.

Don’t look now, but this past July I produced a whopping four new film reviews. That’s like, one or two more than what I put out the last several months, but it’s also not that much. Specifically, it is 14 less 10, the result of 100 divided by 25 and the square root of 16. I produced the square root of 16 number of reviews this month. That sounds somehow . . . better. In a perfect world (or, back in 2013/’14/’15) I would make sure those numbers were bare minimums for the month, but I can no longer make those assurances because, well . . .

I’m not very good at keeping schedules and I’m just as bad with commitment. Well, maybe not as bad. This past July, my blog of old (Digital Shortbread — a name I couldn’t quite abandon so I kept it as my URL! My Earl!) turned 7 years old. Forgive me for getting a little nostalgic here but I’m proud of that, because the journey has not always been easy. In fact the longer you do this I feel the greater the challenge becomes to find new inspiration. Like, this isn’t a personal problem of mine. Getting burned out is a really common occurrence. This actually brings me to an interesting question about the blogging process.

Before we get into that though, here is a quick glimpse at what has been going on on Thomas J during the last month.


New Posts

New Releases: Sicario 2: Day of the SoldadoAnt-man and the WaspSorry to Bother YouSkyscraper

Five Most Anticipated Fall 2018 Releases

As we shift into the awards season (I know!), naturally there are going to be some priorities and as of right now, they look a little something like this (in no particular order):

  1. White Boy Rick (September 14) — the true story of the rise of America’s youngest drug kingpin-turned FBI informant. Stars Matthew McConaugh-hey as the father and Richie Merritt as Richard Wersche, Jr. From the director who brought you ’71.
  2. Venom (October 5) — with a face like Venom, who now can honestly say they don’t want to kiss Tom Hardy? The dude is stacking up an impressive list of villainous roles and in this anti-heroic origins story about one of Spider-man’s nemeses, he looks to leave a disturbing impression. Fingers and tongues crossed.
  3. First Man (October 12) — all you needed to say was Damien Chazelle and I’m there. But then you add to that the fact Ryan Gosling is re-teaming with his La La Land director on a project about astronaut Neil Armstrong (famous for something) and, well, I have no words other than . . . TAKE. MY. MONEY! This could be a classic.
  4. Beautiful Boy (October 12) — I’ll be honest here, the only thing I am using to build my expectations is the trailer for Beautiful Boy. It mesmerized me, offering up yet another dramatic role for Steve Carell in a drama about drug addiction, relapse and recovery — based on the memoirs from father and son David and Nic Sheff. Oscar nominee Timothée Chalamet will play Nic.
  5. Widows (November 16) — from the master of the gut-wrenching drama Steve McQueen, Widows tells the story of four women who join forces for a heist after their conmen husbands are killed during a botched robbery. Though the genre doesn’t necessarily scream “tough to watch,” I am anticipating another heavy-hitter. This is the director of 12 Years a Slave, Hunger and Shame, after all. This one is (probably) gonna get rough. Unless it doesn’t, and becomes something unlike anything he’s done before. Worth noting, too, is the absence of McQueen regular Michael Fassbender.

So with another month of frustration over and done with, I have to know —

What’s your writing process like? How do you set about filling up a blank page? How quick are you to the writing board after seeing a movie? Are you a throw-down-the-hammer type of producer — the kind to start and finish in an hour or do you labor over it over the course of several sessions? When do you feel most productive and accomplished?

Me? I suffer. I’m absolutely the latter. I drag myself through the trenches of coming up with a first draft, then polishing it into a second. Then, I get fucked by editing. That part is war. An attrition of deletion and rephrasing that only a great university instructor in Bonnie Hufford could have prepared me for. One of the principal tenets of this blog has always been coming as close as possible to achieving grammatical perfection. I have taken pride in my work in that way and hopefully have made my former journo profs proud here, but who knows — commas, semicolons and hyphens are tricky little fuckers and I’m sure I misuse them all the time.


Well that got boring at the end there. Jesus.

Skyscraper

Release: Friday, July 13, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Directed by: Rawson Marshall Thurber 

There’s no ignoring the fact the star of Skyscraper, a veritable homage to one of cinema’s greatest action reels, once donned a sacrificial lion’s head as battle gear in a movie directed by Brett Ratner about the god Hercules. Earlier this summer, he also starred alongside a giant albino gorilla with an affinity for rude gesturing. These are things that happened, and yet there is this other thing called redemption and that’s what movies like Skyscraper are good at providing. Not that I’m growing increasingly concerned about The Rock’s role choices; at worst they’re palatably cheesy, not stale and rancid like Bruce Willis circa Die Hard 7000.

In Rawson Marshall Thurber’s new film Global Icon Dwayne Johnson™ plays Will Sawyer, a U.S. war vet and former FBI hostage negotiator who now assesses the security of buildings all over the globe. His latest assignment has brought him to Hong Kong, where he is to evaluate the integrity of the fire prevention and security measures of the world’s tallest superstructure, The Pearl. A bad day on the job 10 years ago prompted him to change careers and in one fell swoop introduced him to combat medic and future wife Sarah (Neve Campbell), with whom he starts up a family and tries to move beyond the days of firing heavy weaponry — much to the chagrin of his old friend Ben (Pablo Schreiber).

Falling in love on the operating table is up there with trying to use animal hide to gain style points, but if you’re experienced at all with his brand, you know you’re better off accepting these things and as soon as possible. If anything, the love-at-first-sedation scene is great practice for what this simply structured yet still ridiculous action event is going to throw at you later. (Hint: lots of on-fire things and leaps of faith.)

It actually makes sense that Thurber spends just as much if not more time establishing a building as an integral role player as he does his human actors. The film is called Skyscraper, after all. The Pearl, a 3,500-foot tall marvel of modern engineering, is undoubtedly the film’s most unique asset. And the sleek, spherical penthouse at the 240th floor is its own crowning achievement. A character unto itself, this monstrosity is the brainchild of wealthy financier Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han) and is the ultimate manifestation of supreme wealth and ambition run amok. Of course one doesn’t rise to this level without making a few enemies and just before Zhao is to open the building in its entirety to the public, along come some pesky terrorists to burn his ambition down. Literally.

It makes sense because while the camera doesn’t ogle over what Zhao modestly describes as “the eighth wonder of the world” as much as I (certainly no architect) would have liked, when the building finally starts to burn it’s pretty damn cinematic. There is a sense of dizzying scale that threw me right back to the best bits of Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk and Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest. The acrophobic should be put on notice. This thing gets pretty atmospheric, and in that way the effort pays off because even as the convenient plot turns become more egregious the action feels increasingly larger than life.

Skyscraper builds just enough human drama to earn our sympathy. This time around Johnson, sporting a prosthetic leg, trades in his all-American good guy swagger for a quieter stoicism. This is a film that effectively expands the actor’s range into the dramatic, though granted this is more toes-in-the-water than a full plunge. The prop isn’t what makes the role dramatic — it’s the way he expresses concern for the well-being of his family. But it isn’t just The Rock doing the ass-kicking and name-clearing. Because his family has made the trip to Hong Kong with him, they find themselves conveniently situated within the drama. Call their problem convenient or even silly — just don’t call the Sawyers helpless victims. Sarah, in particular, proves herself when push comes to shove and she shoves the hell out of the opposition. That’s before setting about subverting other major genre clichés, too.

Moving past the adults, the children are another pleasant revelation. They aren’t given big speaking roles but these are two of the most agreeable movie kids I have met in some time. Together, these actors comprise a wholly natural family that’s easy to root for. Still, it’s a shame we are ultimately robbed of more screen time devoted to just The Rock and Neve Campbell as the two have solid chemistry. As for the villains, they’re not so impressive. They simply exist to provide generic conflict. Their motive is convoluted, but suffice it to say Kores Botha (troublemaker-turned-actor Roland Møller) is being pressured by some even worse people to put a major dent in Zhao’s soaring stock.

Skyscraper is a breezy summer escape told in an economic fashion — a sleekly designed throwback to classic action movies, and one that slots in among Johnson’s better efforts. Will Sawyer is no John McClane, but then again he doesn’t need to be. Skyscraper finds the former wrestler polishing his new craft (well, relatively new — this is his 15th film) while updating the male badass archetype. Sometimes being the badass means maybe not being able to find a way out of this mess on your own. Sometimes it means being completely vulnerable and owning up to that.

Recommendation: Skyscraper offers up another round of The Rock doing Rock things but in a decidedly more straight-faced manner. The action is fun and visually stunning at times. Don’t look to it for the best villains of 2018 or some profound statement about where technology is going or how crazy rich people are just crazy people in nice clothes or anything like that, but when it comes to picking which Dwayne Johnson you should see sooner (or at all) the choice is pretty obvious. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 102 mins.

Only in the movies: In order to make the jump from the crane to the building featured in the trailer Sawyer would have to run and leave the platform at 28.4 mph. For comparison, Olympic Champion Usain Bolt’s fastest recorded speed is 27.4 mph.

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

Hell or High Water

'Hell or High Water' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 12, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Taylor Sheridan

Directed by: David Mackenzie

The day after you’ve watched something is probably not the time to proclaim that thing an instant classic. It would be wise to allow the infatuation phase to run its course before declaring your undying love for your partner. Unfortunately for me, I trade in hyperbole and sensationalist journalism so I have a very hard time calming down when I see something as enjoyable and well-crafted as David Mackenzie’s hybrid post-modern western/heist thriller.

Contrasted against a fairly weak summer slate of cinematic offerings, perhaps Hell or High Water is destined for a spot on the top shelf it might not have earned in another year but there’s no denying this is a film crafted with care and precision and featuring some of the year’s most enjoyable (read: believable) performances in a leading trio featuring Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges as surly West Texans caught in a fascinating, morally complex game of cat-and-mouse (okay, cops-and-robbers if you want to be more accurate).

Two brothers — the divorced Toby (Pine) and ex-con Tanner (Foster) — set into motion a master plan to save their family’s farm from foreclosure by relieving a string of Texas Midland Bank branches of large sums of cash. These are the very banks that have been slowly but surely milking the Howard clan dry for decades. Despite their efficiency and a knack for finding new getaway vehicles, they soon find themselves on Marcus Hamilton (Bridges)’s radar, a local ranger on the verge of a long-overdue retirement. He’s hungry for one last chase and strings along for the ride his half-Mexican, half-Native American partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).

All goes according to plan until the brothers Howard hit a bank in Post, where the locals aren’t so submissive, despite Tanner’s best efforts to terrorize. (An unsettling yet frequently amusing psychopathy renders his criminal history entirely unsurprising. In this world there aren’t good cops/bad cops, there are good robbers/bad robbers and Tanner is decidedly more the latter.) Unprepared for resistance, they find themselves scrambling to escape a bloody scene that turns a once-righteous deed into an unintended murdering spree. All the while the rangers remain only a half-step behind, distracted only by the fact Marcus is fated for a rocking chair and greener pastures come the end of the week. The two narratives, compelling in their own right, eventually coalesce into a spectacular, oft unpredictable showdown that eschews traditional heroics and villainous archetypes. Think No Country For Old Men meets Robin Hood.

In a film filled with stellar acting turns, Pine’s quasi-transformative, ski-mask-wearing thief might just outshine the rest as his bedraggled countenance bears the brunt of the film’s moral quandary. Toby’s obligations to family — a financially struggling ex-wife and two teen boys — trump any obligation to abide by the law of this crumbling wasteland, a place where old granny’s fixin’ to blow ya off the front porch with her 12-gauge just for trespassin’. (That particular scene doesn’t happen but you can imagine it happening.) A place where the hustle and bustle of cities like New York and L.A. may as well be happening on another planet. Captain Kirk Pine finds much room for personal growth in a script that believes in full-bodied characters and thoughtful story development. His devotion to his sons may justify a few smooth robberies, but does it justify the violence later on? How far should a person go to protect the ones they love?

Hell or High Water isn’t simply a case of an amateur robbery gone awry, although there is very much an element of bumbled professionalism at play. Think of these guys more as skilled amateurs, dabbling in the art of robbing from the corrupt and redistributing to those who are destitute. What inspires their actions is very much an indictment of corporate America and how that unstoppable locomotive frequently flattens any poor sod who happens to be standing on the tracks (i.e. anyone who has been unfortunate enough to put their trust in banks who consistently loan money, their money, to others who can’t possibly afford to repay the debt). Indeed, if you wish to dig deeper into these scenes juxtaposed against a rugged, wildly unpredictable American west, you’ll find hints of Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes as well. The pain. The outrage. Tension’s palpable, manifested especially in Toby’s final confrontation with a ranger who thinks he has him figured out.

Hell or High Water is impeccably performed, a reality reinforced by the brilliance of Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay, one that allows the entire cast to put their best cowboy boot forward. Even bit-parts such as a stubborn waitress who refuses to hand over her $200 tip as evidence because she has a roof to keep over her and her daughter’s heads and an elderly local who ain’t threatened by “thugs” become precious commodities. Bridges doesn’t really need the pampering but he’s par excellence. Amidst a rather bleak mise-en-scène, Sheridan finds ways to wring out a kind of naturalistic, borderline farcical sense of humor that assures levity while never distracting from the more shocking drama that awaits in a climactic stand-off. A bickering repartee between two sheriffs drives the entertainment value sky-high, while Foster runs away with his role and in all the best ways.

You might describe the portrait as stereotypical of the image non-locals have already painted in their mind of a place they perceive to be backwards and lawless. This place is hostile and the people tough, resilient and pretty stand-offish. But the film isn’t  so reductive as to parody life in these parts. It focuses upon real people living out real lives in the only way they know how, desperate to make something work in a nation described in the Pledge of Allegiance as undivided, with liberty and justice for all. The ever-captivating mystery invites us to form our own opinions of these people and communities. And suffice it to say, and while difficult at times, it’s best to reserve judgment until the very end.

My judgment is thus: Hell or High Water is one of the most enjoyable, entertaining and satisfying films 2016 has to offer. By turns nostalgic for a bygone period in cinema — that of the classic John Wayne shoot-em-up — and hungry to forge new frontiers with a riveting story that, while not categorically unpredictable, explores boundaries few films bother exploring anymore. It’s a grand adventure, something that will undoubtedly offer up something new to discover upon repeat viewings. This is how you make movies, folks.

Jeff Bridges in 'Hell or High Water'

Recommendation: Hell or High Water, an uncommonly (and unexpectedly) solid bit of modern western action, refuses to stoop to the lowest common denominator of reducing drama to bloody gunfights and cheesy quips. It’s a heist film executed almost to perfection. Fans of the cast are sure to love it, particularly Pine who continues to show he has more talent than just fulfilling an iconic leadership role on the U.S.S. Enterprise. This is undoubtedly his best work yet, slurry southern drawl and all. And I hate to keep making Star Trek comparisons, but on an entertainment scale, Pine’s misadventures here are far worthier of your time. This goes beyond where many modern westerns have gone before. Two Roger Ebert thumbs up.

Rated: R

Running Time: 102 mins.

Quoted: ” . . . go f**k yourself.” 

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 

Suicide Squad

'Suicide Squad' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 5, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: David Ayer

Directed by: David Ayer

Sigh.

Suicide Squad is neither a disaster nor a revelation. It’s just really, really uneventful and in that way, crushingly disappointing.

Let me grab a calculator and get back to you, because the math really doesn’t add up. I don’t quite know how you commit the cardinal sin of moviemaking with this cast, these characters, and this competent a director. When considering the myriad ways in which this utterly routine action adventure manages to bore and underwhelm, the difference between what we might have imagined and what we ultimately get kind of becomes this scintillating mystery. What the hell happened here? What could this have actually been? (In fairness, it could have been worse.) Would Suicide Squad have been better off with a less restrictive MPAA rating?

It’s been some time since so much potential has been squandered this efficiently. This callously. Not since this 2013 debacle have I left a theater feeling so utterly deflated and unmotivated to stand in line for another event picture anytime soon. The main culprit is an exceptionally shoddy story, one seemingly cobbled together by crayon-wielding first graders. It’s shocking Ayer turns out to be that first grader. He kicks things off with brief introductions to the cadre of miscreants before randomly launching into a perfunctory doomsday plot involving Midway City and some bullshit concerning Cara Delevingne-shaped meta-humans drenched in bad CGI. From the word ‘go’ the production reeks of unpreparedness, disorganization, even chaos.

Hashtag awkward. Hashtag clumsy. Hashtag done-with-this-summer-of-movies.

In the beginning everyone’s hanging out at the famed Belle Reve Penitentiary, doing hard time for various crimes. The first two we immediately recognize to be our ringleaders: Will Smith‘s Floyd Lawton, a.k.a. Deadshot, is seen getting his punching bag on (in preparation for that big action scene later!) and Margot Robbie‘s gleefully unhinged Harley Quinn, formerly known as psychiatrist Harleen Quinzel, inhabits her super-secure steel cage like a PG-13-friendly Hannibal Lecter. We meet the others as well but for insultingly brief periods, time enough I guess to prove the film’s disinterest in the ‘Squad’ part of its title. There’s the pyrokinetic ex-gangster Chato Santano, a.k.a. El Diablo  (Jay Hernandez); a boomerang-wielding guy named . . . Boomerang (Jai Courtney); a surly man with a scaly skin condition who dwells in city sewers, appropriately called Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). They’re joined also by a mercenary named Slipknot (Adam Beach) and Japanese warrior Katana (Karen Fukuhara).

Our little ruffians are kept under the thumb of intelligence operative Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), an antihero of a different breed with her considerable lack of compassion and morally-dubious methods of wielding governmental power. She’s a high-ranking official who will do whatever it takes to prevent World War Three from breaking out. Or something like that. Anyway, she’s a pretty bad egg whose motives become increasingly suspect, a trend that neatly paralleled my own suspicions. Waller enlists the help of Colonel Rick Flagg (Joel Kinneman) to keep all her disposable, criminal pee-ons in line. When Flagg reads them the riot act that’s our cue to get ready for action. Hooray — it’s the Suicide Squad and now shit is going down!

Only, nothing does. With writing that lacks inspiration or a strong reference point — or any point, period — getting excited becomes an unreasonable challenge. The bleakness of the world in which this non-drama occurs bleeds over into the experience itself, but bleakness is less of an issue. I say let this thing be dour — this isn’t Marvel. But along with that bleakness comes the joylessness. With joylessness, a sense of aimlessness. Few of the members of Suicide Squad are stoked about undertaking a mission that will very likely get them killed, and if random gunfire doesn’t do it a frustrated Waller will if they so happen to fail or step out of line. That psychology may ring true to the comics but the cast wear their broken hearts on their sleeves a bit too much while, ironically, no one outside of Robbie’s freewheeling Harley and Jared Leto’s not-half-bad Joker seem to have that same muscle invested in any of this.

As the movie shuffles begrudgingly onward, alarming amounts of material fail to materialize, leaving Ayer’s efforts to introduce this infamously savage group to the world-at-large to disintegrate like used toilet paper. Unconvincing sob stories are stapled on to a few characters who lurk in the background behind Deadshot and Harley Quinn, but this isn’t enough to justify an excess of shots designed to show why this idea should work. (Here’s a radical 21st Century concept: show, don’t tell.) All those precious moments going to waste watching the film’s most interesting character (by far) out-act her colleagues might have been better spent doing something else. Something other than trying to convince us that the movie knows what it is doing with such damaged cargo.

With all of that in mind, damages really come down to a (granted, rather large) misjudgment of plot substance, and a lack of personality to give us a reason to get over that issue. The DCEU’s Guardians of the Galaxy this is not. Even still, there are some really great performances to take away, namely those of the volatile core of Robbie, Smith, Davis and Leto. The former seem to be heating up since their days working on Focus, while the latter have some fun tossing a shitload of ham around. Davis overshoots her goal of becoming the film’s Surprisingly Evil Element while Leto lets out his inner psycho in a turn that recalls vintage Jack Nicholson while wisely skimping on Heath Ledger inflections.

The Suicide Squad Joker is actually really good. He’s a nasty son of a bitch and his twisted romantic subplot with Harley Quinn is the most compelling. Too bad Leto’s commitment is virtually all for naught. As has been widely reported, many of his scenes were cut. Leto’s response to a question concerning his lack of screen time late in the film is especially damning. Even he wants to know what the Joker was doing for so long without visual confirmation of his scheming ways. His absence is microcosmic of a larger problem. I’m not sure anyone, not even the studio, rumored to have played a hand in production delays and re-shoots, knew what kind of gem they were holding in their hands.

Suicide Squad is not a bad film but it is frustratingly mediocre and that’s enough to drive me crazy.

Jared Leto as the new Joker in 'Suicide Squad'

Recommendation: Suicide Squad suffers from a lack of plot mechanization. What is the purpose? Why are we here? Why can’t the story be about something more interesting? For the longest time, the story never seems to be going anywhere. The pacing is choppier than damn it and not much of David Ayer’s directorial touch can be found here (ya know, other than the hordes of heavily armed, well-built people parading around a war-zone). I don’t really know what to say, other than this film basically sums up the year we have had so far when it comes to big event pictures. Mostly disappointment. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 123 mins.

Quoted: “Love your perfume! What is that, Stench of Death?”

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Lights Out

'Lights Out' movie poster

Release: Friday, July 22, 2016

[Theater*]

Written by: Eric Heisserer

Directed by: David F. Sandberg

In Swedish filmmaker David F. Sandberg’s feature debut, an expanded realization of a short film he made in 2013, something sinister lurks in the absence of light and enjoys tormenting anyone unfortunate enough to be in the same room with it. That is, of course, unless those people have a flashlight or bright cell phone screen handy and they can wield it like Father Merrin does the cross before Pazuzu himself: “Go away! Go away, you!”

Lights Out is a family drama dressed up as a fright fest. It’s well-acted and on-the-rise Aussie actress Teresa Palmer makes much of it worth your while. She’s certainly easier on the eyes than she is on your heart, a kind of bratty youth who blames her attitude on daddy walking out on the family so long ago. Her mother (Maria Bello) has lost her mind and become reclusive. After many years she’s still haunted by the disappearance of childhood friend Diana.

Her daughter Rebecca (Palmer) can’t seem to get a grip on her own life. She lives alone in her apartment and doesn’t want to call the guy she’s been seeing for eight months her boyfriend. Bret (Alexander DiPersia)’s not going anywhere though, not even after he’s finally met Rebecca’s crazy mom. Heck, especially after. Rebecca has a younger half-brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) who still lives at home but soon it becomes clear that that situation can no longer continue, what with mom talking to herself late at night and haunting the poor boy with stories of her past. Stuff about Diana. Other gibberish.

One thing that Lights Out has going for it is a strong sense of family. That manifests despite the brokenness of this particular household. Whether it’s Rebecca’s instinctive protectiveness of Martin — she attempts to take him in and care for him at her own apartment before a child care specialist shows up and impresses upon her the actual, transformative reality of becoming a caretaker — or Bret’s inexplicable devotion to his not-girlfriend; even Sophie, the sick mother, has a deep love for her son and daughter. The film is wisely, and arguably, more intimately concerned with human relationships than it is with things going bump in the night. Bello in particular manages to really dial in on the emotional heft of her character experiencing some low moments.

Palmer is less interesting, as is her boy-toy. Both actors are likable enough but the latter barely leaves his fingerprints on the story. Rebecca never really seems to change, as circumstances force her to get back in touch with her mother despite years of tension and weirdness. As Martin, the young Bateman has presence but more importantly he spares us from yet another shrieking, generally irritating cinematic creation who serves no greater purpose than to put everyone in needless danger.

Less interesting than any of these is the antagonist, some haunt that has roots in the history of this once-upon-a-time happy family. Frustratingly Lights Out is another case in which evil appears and acts only when the script finds it convenient. This would also explain the apparition’s obnoxious inconsistencies, like being able to shut down power to an entire building but not having the fortitude to withstand an attack from the light of a cell phone. Something interesting does come out of the invention — it’s creepy watching the thing move in between flips of a light switch — but if you’re in it for the wickedness awaiting all those who have trespassed, you’re in the wrong movie.

If you’ve come for the jump scares, you’ve come to the right place. That’s all Lights Out does, even if it does it well. I hope it doesn’t become Sandberg’s calling card. Despite the quality of a handful of those moments, I gotta say a person’s healthy fear of darkness is actually more intense than the fear of what Sandberg’s film has laying around in it. I can’t help but feel like we would understand the function of so many repeated jump scares if the threat were more real. Without a compelling villain behind everything the technique just feels lazy and uninspired. Repetitive.

When it comes right down to it, decent ghost story; not so good movie.

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* I have never walked out on a movie because of other people in the theater being too loud. Lights Out broke that streak. I went to check it out on Friday but there were two very intoxicated guys in there who genuinely just didn’t realize how loud they were being. Unfortunately this was after they and two other groups came in after the movie had begun (like, tape rolling not the credits and stuff). I got a pass for another time, came back Saturday. I was alone in the theater (11:15p) until a rambunctious little group of teens came in and they proceeded to talk through the entire movie and were probably even louder than the guys the night before. I almost left again. So it is quite possible that this review doesn’t accurately reflect how I might have felt about it had I been able to fully concentrate on the film. So, I thank those individuals for that. Thanks for the distractions. 


Recommendation: The strong sense of family is what makes Lights Out worth sitting through at all. The steeped-in-reality tone and settings feel very James Wan but there’s little evidence of his influence elsewhere. I suppose the script isn’t the worst you could find either. But come the end of it  you’re left wanting a lot more. That’s a shame when everyone seems so committed. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 81 mins.

Quoted: “Hey Martin, what’s up? Did we wake you?”

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Free State of Jones

free-state-of-jones-movie-poster

Release: Friday, June 24, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Gary Ross; Leonard Hartman

Directed by: Gary Ross

In Gary Ross’ new film, inspired by the life of Civil War medic-turned-rebel Newton Knight, the firepower has been upgraded from crossbows to muskets and bayonets, but both the fire and the power in the former Hunger Games director are absent in Free State of Jones, a comprehensive but long, bloated and surprisingly boring look at a turbulent period in the history of a rural Mississippi county.

The movie opens promisingly with a scene that puts us right in harm’s way alongside Matthew McConaughey’s Newton Knight. French cinematographer Benoît Delhomme’s unflinching camera plunges us into the nightmare that is war. Things get really nasty as we follow him back and forth between battlefield and MASH unit, carting off dozens of casualties, including young boys (represented by Jacob Lofland‘s gun-shy Daniel). We’re witnessing the Battle of Corinth, the second such violent encounter this area, a key railroad junction, has experienced following a siege earlier that year (1862).

This bloodbath is catalytic for our hero, a farmer whose idealistic extremism is matched only by the extremes of poverty he lives in, as he abandons his post and returns home to his sister Serena (Keri Russell), no longer feeling it is his duty to support a war that only the very wealthy seem to benefit from. It’s back on his farm where he meets and befriends Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a slave woman who has been secretly learning to read and who will introduce him to an underground society of runaway slaves and a handful of other disenchanted southerners.

The thrust of the narrative focuses on Newton’s transformation and how he becomes perceived by those he has left behind. His new duty is to inspire the downtrodden into action and to lead them in a movement that would ultimately establish south-central Mississippi as a place free from slavery and other forms of oppression and persecution. As the war continues the population in Newton’s militia increases as more Confederate soldiers desert their troops, though the disintegration of the fabric of honest American living continues.

Large crops of corn are being confiscated and sold by Confederates who have conveniently reinterpreted recent lawmaking as their entitlement to 90% of whatever they happen to find, leaving farmers with a stash that’s precisely the opposite of what the law provides for. There’s a sizable chunk of film spent on Newton trying to persuade Union forces to recognize Jones County as a free and independent entity. That comes and goes. Later still, after the war has ended, we see Newton continuing to push for racial equality as he takes up the mantle for Moses Washington (Mahershala Ali), a former slave he befriended years ago in the swamps where the uprising began.

The screenplay attempts to develop Moses and Newton concurrently but that ambition also becomes its greatest downfall. Neither character is given enough perspective to seem truly changed. Ali gets a shade more attention later as we see him slowly succumbing to anger when violence is brought upon his family. Newton, seemingly the kind of individual who voluntarily shoulders more than his fair share of stress, chooses to help a dear friend in need. His dedication to the cause is consistent with many a vet who tragically struggle to leave the battlefield behind psychologically. You could consider his benevolence a symptom of some larger personal issue and it is in this regard his travails truly become compelling.

But before you start heading for the exits, we still need to finish talking plot. (I know, I’m in full-on ramble mode today.) While all of the aforementioned is being addressed on a timeline that stretches several long, grueling years — one look comparing McConaughey at the end of the film to his appearance at the beginning would be enough to confirm — there’s a bigger arc to consider: that of Newton’s great-great-great grandson, Davis (Brian Lee Franklin). In present-day Mississippi Davis is on trial for trying to marry a white woman. He himself is one-eighth black and therefore faces a five-year prison sentence for unlawfully cohabiting with a person of another race.

There are other things wrong with Free State of Jones, but among the more painful missteps is without doubt the editing, chiefly the decision to jettison the audience right out of the 1800s with a jarring flash-forward cut that jumps 85 years on the timeline out of nowhere. (Okay, so it’s not literally present-day Mississippi.) In the end the Knight case is tossed out by a Mississippi Supreme Court who think it’s better to maintain the status quo than to rewrite the rulebook. The courthouse scene, rather than tracing the legacy of Newton Knight, comes across as a superfluous and clumsy attempt at contriving a sense of epic-ness. (If you’re going to show us the significance of this story to Jones County residents of today, wouldn’t it be better to showcase the harsh realities of that court date in the closing scenes?)

When it comes to the reenactments, Free State of Jones is neither memorable nor utterly forgettable. And of course the question on everyone’s mind is how well its star fares. Well, the McConaissance hasn’t come to a grinding halt, but the party seems to be dying down. Still, this is a solid performance from an A-lister who just may be starting to experience the drawback of going on such a dramatic run in recent years, beginning with his humbled turn in Mud and “ending” with his crafty black-hole navigation skills in Interstellar.

Mbatha-Raw comes to mind next, with her quietly powerful and soothing presence as the self-educating Rachel. She’s a good fit for McConaughey on screen, even if the latter still casts larger shadows. Then there’s Mahershala Ali as the escaped slave Moses. Ali affects a stoicism that gets harder to watch as Confederate forces continue threatening (and carrying out) lynchings and dog hunts. Ali has presence here but he’s much more worth watching in Netflix’s very own House of Cards.

It’s hard to judge many of the supporting performances as the majority of them serve no greater purpose than to await their exit from the story. Death becomes the drumbeat everyone marches to. Invariably as time pushes on we say more goodbyes than hello’s and it becomes apparent towards the fraying ends of our patience that we were never meant to get to know the others. They exist simply to provide casualties. Or maybe it only seems that way since few beyond our trio of good guys have anything of significance to say or do.

In short, it becomes very difficult to care about a grassroots movement when all we see are actors standing around listening to a particularly high-profile thespian delivering his soap box speeches. Calling Free State of Jones a terrible movie is about as accurate as a bayonet, but it’s certainly forgettable and barely more than mediocre.

Free State of Jones

Recommendation: I still think Matthew McConaughey is the big draw here, and Free State of Jones‘ themes make it a fairly timely movie this July. Unfortunately the star doesn’t quite deliver like he has in recent films, though it’s hardly a turn for the worse. The story is simply all over the place and takes on too much to keep even the longest of attention spans focused on all that it has to offer. There is a lot of potential here and it’s so frustrating seeing it go to waste.

Rated: R

Running Time: 139 mins.

Quoted: “From this day forward we declare the land north of Pascagoula Swamp, south of Enterprise and east to the Pearl River to the Alabama border, to be a Free State of Jones. And as such we do hereby proclaim and affirm the following principles. Number one, no man ought to stay poor so another man can get rich. Number two, no man ought to tell another man what you got to live for or what he’s got to die for. Number three, what you put in the ground is yours to tend and harvest and there ain’t no man ought to be able to take that away from you. Number four, every man is a man. If you walk on two legs, you’re a man. It’s as simple as that.”

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The Shallows

'The Shallows' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 24, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Anthony Jaswinski

Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra 

Blake Lively vs. Huge Shark: The Movie is a pretty sweet little thriller, a self-contained enterprise that seeks to unnerve rather than terrify by tapping into human’s innate fear of deepwater-dwelling beasts like great whites (not to mention horrifyingly large jellyfish).

Jaume Collet-Serra’s tropical-set horror/thriller is a refreshingly slight film set adrift in a sea of complex, bombastic . . . well, I’m not gonna name names or genres but we all know where I’m going with this. The premise is simple, the cast is engaged and the cinematography transports us to ‘Paradise’ with Lively’s big-wave-seeking, medical-school-abandoning Nancy Adams who has been having a rough time since the passing of her mother. Nancy has seemingly inherited her mom’s love for surfing as she finds herself now on the sands of a secluded, nameless cove — apparently the very place her mom claimed as her favorite surf spot.

This really is Lively’s movie — okay, and the shark’s, yes how could I forget — because her interactions with others, including the local with whom she hitches a ride to the beach, are limited to a flurry of brief exchanges, most of which are designed to prove that Nancy doesn’t speak very good Spanish and the locals don’t speak good English. That particular communication barrier doesn’t really matter because no one speaks Shark and that’ll come in handy more than anything later.

The Shallows is indeed an intimate experience, reminiscent of Danny Boyle’s 2011 survival drama 127 Hours at least when it comes to the harrowing quasi-first person perspective. Serra’s vision is certainly fun and exciting, but it hardly effects the emotional and psychological involvement Boyle did when James Franco decided to throw down the performance of a lifetime. In fact, in spirit this shares more in common with the personal trials we endure with Reese Witherspoon as she attempts to reconnect with herself and her family by embarking on a bold solo hike in Wild.

As Cheryl Strayed, Witherspoon’s performance was informed by a mixture of guilt and bitterness as she continued along her journey, strong emotions that only fueled her to keep going. Lively’s Nancy isn’t so much bitter as she is guilt-ridden and still at a loss for words when it comes to talking about the past. We see it in the brief glimpses we get of her sister and father via FaceTime on her phone prior to her hitting the waves. She can barely hold a conversation with her father because the conversation about why she decided to drop out of med school inevitably surfaces.

It’s probably not worth delving into character development at any great depth since that’s pretty much the extent of it. Suffice it to say there’s enough here to actually make us feel something when Nancy finds herself, ironically much like Aron Ralston, stuck between (or in this case on) a rock and a hard place when the shark’s aggressive circling pins her to a small outcrop of rock that appears at low tide. She’s only 200 yards from shore but the shark is much too fast for that to be viable option. There’s a small metallic buoy about 15 yards from the rock she could swim to when high tide reclaims the rock.

Can Nancy out-smart her toothy predator?

Boobs. We’d love to find out the answer if the cameras weren’t constantly fixated on ogling Lively’s lovely beach bod. I had a lot of fun with The Shallows — the increasingly versatile Lively is certainly committed to the material and the movie looks glorious — but some part of me can’t shake the feeling this was kind of a pervy shoot. And that is a thought that somewhat diminishes the enjoyment I got out of a film that was never meant to be taken seriously.

blake lively in 'The Shallows'

Recommendation: More Deep Blue Sea than it is JawsThe Shallows manifests as a silly but ultimately fun bit of summer escapism, one shot confidently enough to ensure those who have a mortal fear of beaches will never go near one again. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 87 mins.

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