The Gray Man

Release: Friday, July 15, 2022 (limited) 

👀 Netflix

Written by: Joe Russo; Christopher Markus; Stephen McFeely

Directed by: Anthony Russo; Joe Russo

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

 

 

***/*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 114 mins.

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

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

Malignant

Release: Friday, September 10, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: Ingrid Bisu; Akela Cooper; James Wan

Directed by: James Wan

Starring: Annabelle Wallis; Maddie Hasson; George Young; Michole Briana White; Jake Abel

 

 

 

 

***/*****

Horror maestro James Wan returns to his stomping grounds with Malignant, an unabashedly strange film with a concept stretched like Playdoh to imaginatively icky extremes. Though featuring the gritty detective subplot of Saw, the creaky house tropes of The Conjuring and the mental trauma aspects of Insidious, the Australian has put together a delirious reel that feels different from the rest of his filmography (and more than a little David Cronenberg) with its spectacle of body horror.

The original story, a collaboration between Wan, his wife Ingrid Bisu and one-time American Horror Story writer Akela Cooper, opens with a creepy, adrenaline-pumping prologue at a Seattle medical facility before seemingly ditching it for the present day. Madison (Annabelle Wallis — Annabelle; Silent Night) lives in the suburbs with husband Derek (Jake Abel). They’re trying to have a child but Madison is struggling with the pregnancy. It takes no time to learn Derek is not a good support system. Returning home early from work after not feeling well, her concerns are met with resentment and eventually violence, leading to Madison experiencing a series of troubling dreams that turn out to be anything but dreams; they’re visions of murders happening in real time, one even involving her husband.

After surviving an attack from what she believes killed Derek she awakens in a hospital to even worse news. Wallis does not miss the opportunity to sell a mother’s anguish. Yet Wan and company have much more suffering on their minds as they put their fully committed lead through the wringer, scaling up her torment and ratcheting up the tension in steady increments. Braving a return to the same lonely house despite the gestures of her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) and insisting it’s “the one thing that won’t be taken” from her, she continues to experience harrowing scenes of people — those in the medical field, it seems — being hacked to death in their own homes. And rather than sweaty sheets she’s constantly “waking up” in a dried pool of blood on her pillow.

Meanwhile the authorities are rubbing their eyes red trying to make sense of the attack, which has been labeled a home invasion. The problem is the lack of evidence of breaking and entering, and weirder things like fingerprints with impossible orientations. Detectives Shaw (George Young) and Moss (Michole Briana White) may not quite appreciate what they have signed up for as digging into Madison’s apparently troubled family history brings about more questions than closure.

As they search for links between the victims and Madison circumstances only become more bizarre, each twist of the directorial knife getting more personal and . . . well, more twisted. That applies on an aesthetic level as well, the filmmakers deploying a number of creative camera stunts to pull us not so much into a world but a head space that’s never less than uncomfortable. Joseph Bishara’s shrieking score amplifies the mood. Transformative VFX early on not only communicate this uniquely cinematic sensation of being “there” with Madison, the motif helps prepare us for the full-on assault of insanity Wan commits to in the final stretches.

Marking a return to horror for Wan who has spent the last several years making big budget, commercial movies, Malignant proves he is not afraid of a little experimentation. It is also proof of the amount of goodwill he has built up in Hollywood. Original stories aren’t sexy anymore. Studios and ticket buyers have an increasing lack of adventurousness in common. It is difficult to part with your hard-earned cash on an unknown entity, even one helmed by an established director, when Marvel hardly needs the word-of-mouth to convince you Loki will be fun. Warner Bros. have gambled on Wan’s concept, itself a gamble on a modern audience’s willingness to go with the flow and to become absorbed in a singular experience.

Malignant is certainly an experience, one with a knack for tattooing its bizarre imagery into the back of your brain. Though the denouement leaves something to be desired, Wan unable to tame the beast as effectively as he builds it up, the majority of the film offers a unique challenge to viewers. This is a movie that you don’t watch so much as let happen to you. Like a freakish corporeal spasm the whole thing feels a little bit out of (your) control in the way a good horror should, twisting and reconfiguring into a pretty unpredictable beast. Those looking for something that feels grounded in reality, the door is right over there. 

“Who’s this joker?”

Moral of the Story: The most divisive horror movie I can recall in some time, Malignant goes for broke and very nearly breaks. Or for some viewers, it might be broken fairly early on. Either way, and despite my three-star rating (which I feel is strong, but not quite a rave) I would describe James Wan’s “new vision of terror” as a must-see. It’s in theaters and on HBO Max. For something so visually intense I’d highly recommend the theater setting. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 111 mins. 

Quoted: “It’s time to cut out the cancer.”

Get a taste of the absurdity in the Official Trailer #2 here! 

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

Black Widow

Release: Friday, July 9, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: Eric Pearson

Directed by: Cate Shortland

Starring: Scarlett Johansson; Florence Pugh; David Harbour; Rachel Weisz

 

 

 

 

***/*****

Timing is everything. This applies, painfully so, to Black Widow, a film that feels compromised in a way few Marvel movies have.

In her first foray into the Marvel Cinematic Machine director Cate Shortland finds herself in an incredibly difficult position. Twenty-four films deep into a shared universe that has now spun off multiple streaming shows, she is tasked with compressing both origins story and swan song into one entertaining package. Black Widow‘s out-of-sequence placement burdens the filmmaker with a number of difficult creative choices, most notably how much nuance she can bring to a story that ostensibly dives into the emotional interior of one of the foundational members of the Avengers.

Hey, at least they finally got the damn thing made. Scarlett Johansson* may have had to wait 11 years, 20 films and her own character’s killing off to earn what Robert Downey Jr. got three times in five years, Chris Hemsworth three in six and Chris Evans twice in three,** but the only resentment you sense from Natasha Romanoff in her eighth and likely final MCU appearance is reserved for Dreykov (Ray Winstone — Noah; The Departed), the Russian psycho who brainwashed and tortured her and her ‘sister’ Yelena Belova (a scene-stealing Florence Pugh) as young girls, along with countless others from all over the world, into becoming an army of perfect assassins.

A bittersweet prologue sets us all up for a rude awakening: a seemingly normal American family in 1995 Ohio is suddenly compelled to make a break for Cuba after being discovered as the Russian sleeper agents they actually are. ‘Father’ Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) and ‘mother’ Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) have been keeping their ‘children’ Natasha (here played by Ever Anderson) and Yelena (Violet McGraw) sheltered for as long as they can but a sad twist of fate shatters the illusion, the daughters separated and handed over to Dreykov and eventually sent to a nebulous place called the Red Room, a hovering fortress in the sky that could have been cribbed from a Pink Floyd concept album.

Cut to the present (which is still the past) and Natasha’s on the run from U.S. Secretary Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) after giving him and his Sokovia Accords the one-finger salute. Her nomadic lifestyle in Norway is short-lived with the arrival of the mysterious mercenary Taskmaster, drawn to an item our hunkering-down hero is unwittingly in possession of. After a violent showdown on a bridge, Natasha escapes to Budapest, where another David Leitch-like round of punishingly awesome fight choreography awaits. Here, reunited with her former sis, Natasha discovers the true extent of Dreykov’s control and power, along with a possible solution to the problem.

Post-Budapest and the spy thriller dynamic evolves into more of a dysfunctional family team-up as the pair resolve to get the old gang back together in order to take down the brute who irrevocably changed them and free the other Black Widows from the same violent servitude. The process of course mandates that mom and dad also confront their own separate, lived-in realities and their culpability in this whole mess, leading to the film’s signature scene (awkward family reunion, anyone?) — an emotional catharsis for all involved. Turns out, reliving the “good old days” is tricky to do when the good old days are your own Tahiti (what a magical place).

Black Widow is a Phase 4 debutante that is much better when grounded instead of going for literally atmospheric, generic spectacle, with some of the quieter moments packing as much of a punch as the intense fight sequences. However, the timing of the whole thing magnifies certain issues. Eric Pearson’s screenplay is not compelling enough for a film this late in the game. And considering the hefty themes in which it traffics and the cast of characters at its disposal there is enough content here to make two films. Instead the exploration of trauma and disillusionment feels rushed and harried by the “Make it count!” business mentality governing its singular existence.

Ultimately the performances save this from total mediocrity. Johansson has kicked ass from her Bechdel Test-failing introduction in Iron Man 2 (2010) through to this bitterly short-lived end, saving her most somber performance for last. Yet even in her own movie she is to some degree playing second fiddle. That’s less of a problem when the reason is Florence Pugh, who might well be stretching her legs for her own MCU run. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take quite as long — in real time or otherwise — to get that going. 

* I am considering reviving the Scarlett Johansson Project. I feel bad leaving that one incomplete. Would anyone be interested in seeing more of those kinds of posts? Show of hands in the comments below, please!

** I do not include Captain America: Civil War in that list considering that is more of an ensemble film than a true stand-alone entry. But, sure, go ahead and add it. Even more to my point.

Comrades in harms.

Moral of the Story: An uncharacteristic end-zone fumble for MCU President and ball-cap enthusiast Kevin Feige, Black Widow feels rather shortchanged by the finite space into which it has been forced to exist. On one hand, you might look at the movie multitasking as both origins and send-off as a unique thing. I don’t know any other MCU installment that has had to do that. On the other, you can’t help but feel Natasha Romanoff deserved more than what amounts to the cinematic equivalent of a hit single. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 134 mins.

Quoted: “Tell me, how did you keep your heart?” 

Check out the Final Trailer for Black Widow here!

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

A Quiet Place Part II

Release: Friday, May 28, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: John Krasinski 

Directed by: John Krasinski

Starring: Emily Blunt; Millicent Simmonds; Noah Jupe; Cillian Murphy

 

 

 

 

****/*****

Speech is silver, silence is golden.

The old proverb has turned into a post-apocalyptic motivational poster in the brave new world John Krasinski has created with A Quiet Place, one in which survivors of an alien attack must mute their every move, their every syllable to avoid being gobbled up by these terrifyingly sound-sensitive invaders. When characters do communicate words and gestures carry weight. Sorry to the aliens, but it is the human factor — fear of failure, coping with loss — that is bringing audiences back for a second helping. The question is, was the prolonged wait worth it?

Short answer: an enthusiastic (but whispered) ‘Yes.’ The secret sauce may not have the same kick twice, for now we’re expecting unbearable silence, but Krasinski has great insurance against damages done by the element of predictability: He’s got strong characters (now handled by Part 1 scribes Scott Beck and Bryan Woods) and the caliber actors to take those creations to an even higher place. Big Tuna’s genius stroke, though, is in shifting the perspective to the kids, turning Part 2 into a legacy film wherein the younger actors have much more agency and influence over events. If the original was an allegory for parental fears of failing your kids, Part 2 swings the other way — Regan’s fear of not measuring up to Dad coming through in her damn-the-torpedoes attitude as she increasingly takes matters into her own hands.

More or less picking up right from where we left off in 2018, barring a prologue that gives us the origins of the creatures in chaotic fashion, A Quiet Place Part 2 wastes no time in justifying the big-screen treatment while along the way introducing some new faces and new albeit not surprising threats. Krasinski, who returns as sole screenwriter this time (and for a brief cameo in the film), sacrifices the intimacy of Part 1‘s more insular location for a larger playing board loaded with even more hazards, some of which truly catch you off-guard, while others might have you cringe for the wrong reason.

Jump ahead 474 days and the Abbotts, the world’s most resourceful family, are now on the run, bereft of Dad and the relative safety of their farmhouse. They are down but far from out. Mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt — Edge of Tomorrow; Looper), with her surviving children Regan (Millicent Simmonds — A Quiet Place; Wonderstruck), Marcus (Noah Jupe — Honey Boy; Wonder) and newborn in tow, is hoping, perhaps against hope, for someone out there to be kind enough to let them in.

They eventually come across a grizzled man hanging out in a dilapidated factory. It turns out to be an old friend from back in the day, Lee’s buddy Emmett (Cillian Murphy — Peaky Blinders; Batman Begins), now uncannily sporting a face covering and a shell of his former self having failed to protect his own family. Understandably he’s reticent to allow anyone else in to his safe space. Of course, uh, he does (otherwise this is going to be A Very Short-lived Quiet Place). It’s not long before the kids are getting restless and Regan, by way of Marcus, discovers there may well be other people worth saving out there. Maybe, upon uniting with them, both factions can help each other. Marcus, however, is not as willing to embark on a suicidal Stand By Me-esque venture into the unknown. And Emmett has made it clear there is nothing out there left to save.

A very likable cast goes a long way in offsetting some of the movie’s shortcomings. For example, it helps to have Murphy and Djimon Hounsou (Captain Marvel; Blood Diamond) fulfill archetypes. While the latter is almost comically incidental to the plot, discarded in a third-act sequence that feels rushed at best, he at least brings a quality of calm to a movie where quietude usually does not translate to peacefulness. As a flesh-and-blood character Murphy fares better. His presence, which evolves from estranged, put-upon uncle to supportive father-figure, becomes integral to the sequel’s themes of perseverance and learning how to move on, especially when he begrudgingly agrees to return Regan to Evelyn.

Part 2 is certainly the louder film. That’s not a bad thing. As the narrative opens into a trident of nerve-racking objectives that finds each Abbott uniquely in peril Krasinski blitzes us with moments of pure thrill while never compromising the humanity at the heart of his story. In fact some of the best character work in either film can be found in Part 2, whether it’s Regan showing compassion for a man who clearly is not her father (skilled in nonverbal communication, possessed of the patience required to work through such difficulties in moments of high anxiety), or Marcus battling something more than monsters as he holds down the fort/furnace while Mama Bear goes searching for precious supplies of oxygen.

Superficially Part 2 doesn’t offer a vastly different experience than what we went through in 2018. I’m not sure it is actually a superior movie but consistency counts for a lot here. Thus far we have two films whose structural integrity very much resembles that of the Abbott’s old farmhouse: Plenty of reliable, sturdy support beams in the form of well-worn genre tropes but also a few really neat, custom bits you won’t find anywhere else. It’s those little details, the way Krasinski and company relate the characters to situations, that will make A Quiet Place worth returning to again, hopefully sooner.

Ya did good, son.

Moral of the Story: The rare sequel that truly works on a conceptual as well as emotional level, A Quiet Place Part 2 welcomes audiences back to theaters in exciting, chilling fashion while laying a clear foundation for more to come. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 97 mins.

Quoted: “Run!”

Check out the “nerve-shredding” Final 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.buffalonews.com 

Wrath of Man

Release: Friday, May 14, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: Guy Ritchie; Marn Davies; Ivan Atkinson

Directed by: Guy Ritchie

Starring: Jason Statham; Holt McCallany; Josh Hartnett; Jeffrey Donovan; Scott Eastwood; Andy Garcia

 

 

 

***/*****

Jason Statham is really not messing around in this dead-serious action thriller that reunites the British badass with director Guy Ritchie for the fourth time and in what feels like the knock-out round.

If you thought Fast and the Furious sported a grim-faced Stath, get a load of him in Wrath of Man, an action/heist thriller that feels pretty familiar save for its leading man’s solemnity. In this L.A.-set bullet-fest he plays an enigmatic man nicknamed H, full name neither important nor as cool. What really matters is what he is willing to do to find the fools responsible for murdering his son in broad daylight. Your basic revenge plot is given a shot in the arm from Ritchie’s custom-made narrative construction and stylish approach to shooting action, but it’s Statham playing it straight that warrants your full attention.

H has just been hired by Fortico Security, responsible for the transportation of large sums of cash for its big boy clients. In a delicious bit of foreshadowing, Terry (Eddie Marsan — The Gentlemen; Filth) makes the dangers of this job abundantly clear to his silent and brooding new hire, revealing that only a matter of a few days ago two guards and a civilian were gunned down during a violent robbery of one of the armored trucks. He continues, oblivious to H’s personal interest in said incident, by explaining this is why Fortico pays “the premium rate” to its employees. Threats lurk around seemingly every street corner, behind every bridge and in every metropolitan tunnel. And the man Terry has just brought on board is beginning to suspect they may well be lurking even closer to home than that.

At its core Wrath is a tale about the lengths a father will go to get revenge. But because it’s Guy Ritchie there are of course a couple of avenues branching off the main street. The screenplay [by Ritchie, Marn Davies and Ivan Atkinson, and evidently a loose adaptation of the 2004 French film Le Convoyeur (Cash Truck)] once again creates an ecosystem wherein nasty people and their nasty deeds collide with one another, often in nasty ways. In a Ritchie movie there is really no such thing as coincidence. Like in a Christopher Nolan blockbuster, it’s just a matter of time.   

In this case a subplot involving a group of highly trained military vets is interspersed with our hero’s (or is that anti-hero’s?) increasingly desperate search, which encroaches upon Quentin Tarantino territory in terms of violence. Led by Jackson (Jeffrey Donovan — Villains; Sicario) and featuring its own X-factor in Jan, played by Scott Eastwood who clearly relishes being the loose cannon, these equally desperate men are seeking a more handsome retirement fund by jumping armored trucks all over the city, eventually culminating in the grandaddy heist in which they plan to relieve the Fortico depot of some $150 million on Black Friday — a pulse-pounding display of force and tactics realized through one of the most brilliantly calculated set-pieces the 52-year-old writer/director has ever engineered.

Sustained, muscular action sequences like these remind you why Ritchie is paid the premium rate by his employers. The patently predictable beats of Wrath are absolutely the beneficiary of his violently poetic style. From the opening title sequence which comes on thick and heavy with an atmosphere of foreboding and a vague scent of man-sweat, through to the appropriately grim title cards fronting the major movements of the piece, Ritchie’s panache permeates every scene and helps elevate otherwise stock-standard developments. Sadly the ending is where the film is weakest and though dripping with ominousness no amount of style can cover up the creative deficiencies here.

Where it’s at its best though is everywhere where Ritchie normally excels, in the highly adrenalized action, in the way he Rubik’s cubes a straightforward plot into something more interesting. In the dialogue, which here is weighted down with dramatic heft instead of sent up for comedic relief. The acting from Josh Hartnett (Pearl Harbor; Black Hawk Down) isn’t exceptional, but for the most part the supporting players, when not unconvincingly shitting their knickers in moments where they should be steeling themselves, are serviceable in their own capacities and several of them come with their own fun little handles (the winner just has to be Hartnett as Boy Sweat Dave). The hulking Holt McCallany (Sully; The Losers) leaves a dent as the talkative Bullet, who takes H under his wing and shows him the ropes.

Through it all Statham remains morose and monolithic, never even entertaining the notion of bringing back Handsome Bob. He resembles more myth than man in this movie, and if you’re willing to accept a certain heightened reality you’re primed to enjoy the way the movie builds the mystique of the character, and the way Ritchie’s signature nonlinear story structure eventually brings his humanity, or what’s left of it, into the full light of day. H may not make for the most dynamic leading man but the core emotive force that propels him forward is obvious and ultimately just enough to make us feel invested in his blood-soaked journey.

SAD: Silent And Deadly.

Moral of the Story: The appropriately-titled Wrath of Man lives up to its promises of there being a lot of wrath and, well, a lot of man. Come for the Stath, stay for a surprisingly cold performance, one that carries the weight of several Statham-led projects all at once and which continues to prove his status as an A-list action star. 

Rated: a well-earned R

Running Time: 119 mins. 

Quoted: “We ain’t the predators. We’re the prey.” 

Here’s another trailer that likes to give most of the movie away. I “love” trailers these days.

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

Photo credits: impawards.com; uncrate.com

Extraction

Release: Friday, April 24, 2020 (Netflix)

👀 Netflix

Written by: Joe Russo 

Directed by: Sam Hargrave 

Starring: Chris Hemsworth; Chris Hemsworth’s muscles; Randeep Hooda; Golshifteh Farahani; Rudhraksh Jaiswal 

Distributor: Netflix

 

 

***/*****

The more cynical takeaway here is that Extraction exists for no other purpose than to prove that the three — er, make it four — Marvel Cinematic Universe alums who have made it possible are capable of more hard-hitting, violent movies. The marketing seemed pretty simple: Here’s another Avenger unleashed in an R-rated movie. Chris Evans got The Red Sea Diving Resort; Chris Hemsworth gets Extraction. (On that note, who the heck is Robert Downey Jr.’s agent?)

As if to one-up his own brooding performances in Thor: The Dark World and the opening stanza of Avengers: Endgame, the hulking Australian goes from being superheroic to super-sullen in this straightforward and straight-up bloody action thriller directed by stunt coordinator extraordinaire Sam Hargrave. In his directorial début he is joined by his buddies Joe and Anthony Russo — the fraternal duo behind some of Marvel’s biggest chapters. The former writes the script and serves as a producer alongside his brother. That pedigree of talent in front of and behind the camera ensured Extraction won the popularity contest with housebound audiences earlier this year, becoming the most-streamed title in Netflix’s catalogue of originals.*

To be more charitable — and more honest — Extraction is a throwback to gritty, ultra-masculine action cinema of the past, a one-note drama that knows its boundaries and doesn’t try to cross them. It isn’t gunning for any awards, but if you’re looking for a way to get your adrenaline pumping, this fast-paced adventure of bone-crunching action should do the trick. Based on the graphic novel Ciudad, the movie pits Hemsworth’s black ops mercenary Tyler Rake against multiple waves of bad guys crawling the cramped streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh. His mission is to rescue Ovi (Rudhraksh Jaiswal), the teenaged son of a drug lord, from a rivaling kingpin. He’s reluctantly sent in by fellow merc Nik Khan (Golshifteh Farahani), along with a support team who are here mostly to help fill the movie’s dead body quota.

What should have been a simple in-and-out turns into basically a suicide mission as the sadistic and well-connected Amir Asif (Priyanshu Painyuli) gets wind of the rescue attempt and puts the city on lockdown, sending reinforcements to all possible exit points. Meanwhile, Ovi’s guardian Saju Rav (Randeep Hooda) is highly motivated to retrieve the boy himself, with his family being threatened by an incarcerated Ovi Sr. Prison walls don’t make this man any less dangerous when there is this much pride at stake. Saju puts his years as a special forces op to good use, muscling through any and all objects standing in his path and leading us to the expected confrontation with Mr. Rake himself.

The cat-and-mouse game that ensues is more technically impressive than it is emotionally involving. While we get some insight into what drives this brooding badass into such dangerous situations, it’s really just window dressing to the carnage that unfolds in the present tense. If you squint you can see a bond beginning to form between Rake and the blank canvas of a schoolboy in his ward (in fairness to the young actor, he just isn’t given enough to do other than look scared). Joe Russo squeezes the orange hard, until some droplets of juicy redemption emerge finally for Rake, a man clearly being consumed inside by pain from a traumatic past.

The editing team paces the story pretty breathlessly, leaving you with as little time to think as its characters, which can only be a good thing when you have a protagonist this immune to dying. The marquee scene, a protracted mid-movie battle between Hemsworth and Hooda that incorporates car chases, falls from rooftops and hand-to-hand combat, proves why Hargrave is one of the best in the business when it comes to building up an action sequence that remains not just white-knuckle but also coherent. The final showdown on a bridge is also quite memorable, with bullets flying everywhere and vehicles set ablaze as all characters converge on the targets.

Unfortunately it is the epilogue that proves to be the movie’s biggest misstep. For the most part Hargrave assembles a lean, mean and self-contained story but when it comes to finishing things off, he becomes weirdly non-committal. As it turns out, he isn’t nearly as ruthless as his leading man. Still though, lack of character development and emotional depth notwithstanding, Extraction gets the job done in brutal and stylish fashion.

* the game has changed. Netflix’s metric now considers two minutes sufficient time for a person to have ‘viewed’ something. it used to be you had to watch something like 75% of a movie or a single episode for that to be counted as a view. 

Drowning in despair

Moral of the Story: I haven’t mentioned anything in my review about Extraction‘s reliance upon the white savior trope, and that’s because I’m not entirely sure it’s problematic. This movie has some undeniably ugly moments (child soldiers, for example) and yes, it is clearly a vehicle for star Chris Hemsworth, but in my view it is Randeep Hooda’s complicated family man who is the movie’s most interesting character. Story-wise and thematically this is pretty basic stuff but it certainly succeeds in its capacity as an ultra-masculine action thriller.  

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

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Photo credits: Netflix

Angel Has Fallen

Release: Friday, August 23, 2019

→Netflix

Written by: Robert Mark Kamen; Matt Cook; Ric Roman Waugh

Directed by: Ric Roman Waugh

Angel Has Fallen is the third but definitely not last installment in the Fallen action movie franchise. That there are enough of these movies to justify the word ‘franchise’ seems an indictment of the American Secret Service. How many other landmarks and VIPs are going to fall on Mike Banning (Gerard Butler)’s watch before he gets fired? Before the concept itself falls into parody? Are we there already?

Angel has probably fallen out of the memory of anyone who caught it in theaters last year but it’s the one I would return to again, no arm-twisting involved. And with no driving involved either, it’s quite possible this review is going to be much sunnier than others you have read. Ric Roman Waugh is the third different director in a series that has at least three more films planned and a TV series spinoff, so it’s anyone’s guess as to how the quality goes from here. For now it seems the third time’s the charm. Angel Has Fallen is a surprisingly fun diversion that I actually had a good time with.

The tables have turned against Butler’s bulletproof Banning as he becomes Public Enemy #1. The story sees the formerly disgraced Secret Service agent due for a promotion to Director. He would be replacing Lance Reddick‘s Director David Gentry, a man who suggests some level of class might be required for the position. The time has finally come to domesticate Banning the wild animal. (The script has these very manly men actually calling each other lions.) While his body is telling him the days of saving the president over and over again are indeed over, what with the chronic back pain and migraines that he keeps secret from his wife (Piper Parebo), his ego is what keeps him in the field and wincing off to the side.

Besides, if he graduates to a big boy office job, when is he ever going to find the time to reminisce about those crazy days in the Army with his old buddy Wade Jennings (Danny Huston)? (Now the CEO of a private military outfit called Salient Global, Wade is the second of the two self-proclaimed lions.)

During a private fishing trip President Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) extends Banning the offer but a drone strike rudely interrupts the day and lays waste to the rest of the security detail, ultimately leaving Mr. President in a coma and Mr. Indestructible handcuffed to his own hospital bed. Banning awakens only to find he has been named a prime suspect by what Special Agent Thompson (Jada Pinkett Smith) of the FBI is calling an attempted assassination. One rather aggressive interrogation and a couple of pretty thrilling developments later and Banning’s on the loose, on the run, in a race against the clock to clear his name and establish the identities of those responsible.

There’s no denying Angel Has Fallen is a generic action thriller. You’re never in doubt as to whether the hero will succeed, or even as to what his next move is going to be. Undoubtedly its biggest flaw is the lack of character development. It’s pretty pathetic that after three movies we still don’t know much about Mike Banning (well, we now know he’s a lion). In fairness, the filmmakers do attempt a deeper background check on the guy than their predecessors. One of the best stretches of the story takes us down the twisty backroads of West Virginia where Banning eventually makes a pit stop at his old man’s heavily fortified cabin to lay low for a while. Clay Banning (Nick Nolte) is your quintessential disillusioned war vet who no longer trusts the government and hasn’t seen his family in years. The grizzled and bearded Nolte somewhat succeeds in providing some emotional weight to the story but his character, like all the other supporters, is a walking cliché.

It’s interesting to note that series creators and original screenwriters Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt are not along for the ride this time. Filling in for them are Matt Cook and Robert Mark Kamen, who have Patriots Day, Taken and The Transporter writing creds between them — all solid action thrillers if not entirely game-changing originals. More importantly they seem the right kind of background for those looking to add their own link in this chain of middling action movies. The pair collaborate with the director on a screenplay that turns out to be very formulaic. However their concept incorporates more of an adventure element into it, making this effort different enough for me to feel more comfortable recommending. That’s definitely a first for this series.

He said I was a lion. Was he lyin’??

Recommendation: Netflix has made this a win-win situation. I get to experience more of the world’s most generic action movie franchise, now at least 60% more guilt-free: I don’t have to put gas money towards a Gerry Butler movie. I’m spared the shame and possible confusion of a ticket attendant mistaking me as a fan of this series even after London Has Fallen. I can pause the show however often I need (per empty beer glass, in this case). And best of all I get to prop my feet up and yell at the screen every time a character does or says something dumb, which in this movie happens a lot. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “I’m glad it was you. Lions, Mike . . . lions.” 

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Photo credits: IMDb

6 Underground

Release: Friday, December 13, 2019 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Paul Wernick; Rhett Reese

Directed by: Michael Bay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rated: R

Running Time: 128 mins.

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

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

Photo credits: IMP Awards; IMDb 

Earthquake Bird

Release: Friday, November 15, 2019 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Wash Westmoreland 

Directed by: Wash Westmoreland 

I spun the Netflix wheel on a Saturday night and landed on this thing called Earthquake Bird. Turns out, it was the caliber movie that rewards in kind the minimal effort I put in to finding it. This slow-burn of a psychosexual thriller has reliable commodities on both sides of the camera, with Wash Westmoreland, one half of the duo behind such well-received dramas as Quinceañera (2006), Still Alice (2015) and Colette (2018) directing and Oscar winner Alicia Vikander in the lead. Unfortunately the end result is nowhere near the sum of its talented parts.

Earthquake Bird is an adaptation of a 2001 novel of the same name by Susanna Jones. I haven’t read the book but it’s not hard to imagine it’s better, even just by browsing through a couple of critical blurbs. This desultory drama revolves around Vikander’s Lucy Fly, a Swedish expat living in Japan circa the late 1980s who gets swept up into a dangerous love triangle and is named a suspect in the disappearance of the other woman, a young American named Lily Bridges (Riley Keough). Written and directed by Westmoreland, the movie incorporates thriller, crime and “romance” elements but fails to make a good, frothy stew out of any of them.

It begins with Lucy being hauled away from her cubicle where she works as a translator — currently on subtitles for Ridley Scott’s 1989 thriller Black Rain (a cute little nod to him serving as producer here) — and to the police station where she vexes the authorities with her evasive answers and soon thereafter the audience with her complete lack of personality. You get these movies all the time where the narrator is an unreliable messenger, but Earthquake Bird steps it up a notch by providing an unreliable narrator in an unreliable framing device. What begins as a focused (if not harsh) police interrogation soon gives way to an ocean of flashback. Any sense of narrative structure or cohesion gets abandoned in favor of pure mood and atmosphere, qualities emphasized by Atticus Ross’ foreboding score.

Lucy traces her steps back to the day she met the mysterious and oh-so-handsome Teiji (Japanese dancer Naoki Kobayashi in his first English-language role), a noodle shop employee who hobbies, somewhat obsessively, as a photographer. His fascination with puddles is soon replaced by a fixation on her pretty visage in black-and-white. She becomes his muse, they enter into a relationship wherein honesty and openness are valued above all else. Physical intimacy is much lower on the list. Their dynamic carries the emotional conviction of a stapler. Yet there’s a symmetry between their worlds of quietude and isolation that makes them kindred spirits. There’s logic to them being together but no feeling in the togetherness.

Enter Lily, who wastes no time ingratiating herself in the lives of these two lovely-looking and lonely people. Thank goodness for Keough, who kicks the movie into a higher gear with her energetic presence. Her character is also more interesting. She’s introduced at first as a nice but needy new acquaintance, then a romantic foe and possibly even destroyer of worlds. Lucy is in a very delicate place, her life a constant shuffle as she seems always to be outrunning something. She has this weird relationship with death, the grim reaper always trailing her. Initially the tension between the two women isn’t purely adversarial; there’s something free and uninhibited about Lily that Lucy wants and also envies. When the trio embark on a weekend getaway to the scenic Sado Island, the sexual tension builds. A strange development further destabilizes an already awkward situation.

Ever since the Swedish dancer-turned-actor blew up on the scene in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina in 2015 I don’t think I’ve seen a performance of hers I haven’t liked. Lucy Fly isn’t exactly vintage Vikander but I blame more of my apathy towards her on the writing rather than the acting. This is a very restrained performance that’s more technically impressive than emotionally resonant — her Japanese, at least to my untrained ears, sounds perfect. Her thousand-mile stare is unsettling. Still I find it pretty terrible that her most interesting, defining trait is the black eye she carries around. And her backstory, when it’s finally barfed out in a much-delayed expositional sequence toward the very end, isn’t nearly as interesting as one hopes it would be for such a protracted build-up.

As if to remind us the title means something, periodic earthquakes rumble through the story in a kind of motif. In the immediate aftermath, a shrill birdsong alerts the town the coast is clear. It very well could be my brain shorting out but I didn’t find any relevance between this and the story at hand. Undoubtedly there’s some deeper metaphorical meaning behind it but the movie doesn’t do near enough to warrant the amount of effort it takes to decode that. Never mind its human Rubik’s cube of a leading lady.

“Tell me all your secrets, like, yesterday.”

Recommendation: What starts out as a kind of Lost in Translation meditation on loneliness and isolation (d)evolves into a run-of-the-mill, Girl on the Train-type murder plot that really doesn’t go anywhere. The characters, save for Riley Keough’s, are totally uninteresting and not worth the effort it takes to understand what drives them. That’s really disappointing when you’re talking about Alicia Vikander and the very interesting-looking Naoki Kobayashi. Le sigh. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 107 mins.

Quoted: ““If every time I took a photo it took a piece of your soul, would you still let me?”

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

Photo credits: IMP Awards; Polygon 

Parasite

Release: Friday, November 8, 2019

→Theater

Written by: Bong Joon Ho; Jin Won Han

Directed by: Bong Joon Ho

I don’t know why, or how, I have never seen a Bong Joon Ho movie before now. The South Korean filmmaker is one of those major voices of world cinema that’s hard to ignore. Yet here I am, crawling out from underneath a (scholar’s) rock. And I wonder if all his movies are quite as metaphorical as Parasite? Or as good. Even if they aren’t he already has a fan in me; you all know how much I love metaphors. Even if they aren’t exactly subtle.

Parasite is a brilliant allegory for class warfare that to’s and fro’s between homes, between worlds and between seemingly disparate genres. The story, collaborated on by Ho and screenwriter Jin Won Han, focuses on the relationship between two families existing on opposite ends of the wealth spectrum. As you might suspect from the title, we are supposed to feel a certain way about that relationship, maybe even take sides. Ascertaining who the real bad and good guys are — or, if you like to play the metaphor game like I do, as we are perhaps intended here, who the real “parasites” and “hosts” are — is kind of the whole point of the exercise. Judging who is actually being victimized proves thrillingly challenging when every character is shaded with a moral grayness, when there is more going on beneath the surface than what first appears.

Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) is the sloven patriarch of the Kim clan. He’s fallen on hard times with his restaurant business having collapsed. He has absolutely no prospects of securing regular income, but he does have the love of his family. His wife Chung-sook (Chang Hyae Jin), disaffected twentysomething daughter Ki-jeong (Park So Dam) and college-aged son Ki-woo (Choi Woo Sik) help him fold pizza boxes as a way to make some pennies. They steal wifi from upstairs (you just have to find the right corner in the right room) and allow themselves to be swallowed whole by the debris storms blown in from outside as street cleaners effectively double as fumigation for their semi-basement-level apartment.

Ki-taek can only see it as a blessing when a family friend, Min-hyuk (Park Seo-joon), one day comes by and gifts Ki-woo a “scholar’s rock,” which he says will bring material wealth to those in possession of it. Ki-woo views it as more metaphorical (then again, he says that about everything). That same friend later offers Ki-woo a job opportunity — he’s leaving the country to study abroad and needs someone to replace him as a tutor for the daughter of the wealthy Parks, who are apparently “nice but gullible.” For Ki-woo, who’s tired of combatting the homeless who like to urinate near their kitchen window, this is a no-brainer; he just needs some important documents to be forged and to make a good impression during the interview.

After gaining the Parks’ trust Ki-woo puts into motion an ambitious plan to get other members of his family involved. One by one they will each take on a different role serving this well-to-do household. Chauffeurs, live-in nannies, art therapists — opportunity abounds here. If all goes according to plan, something Papa Kim does not like to do as he thinks plans always fail, they will pull this off without ever being suspected of being related. What results goes beyond the most ingenious home invasion scheme you’ve ever seen; this is more like a life invasion — a long con of increasing boldness as the Kims set about vicariously living that sweet life, feeling very little remorse over the things they have done to ingratiate themselves into a world in which they seemingly do not belong.

Parasite made history at Cannes last year, becoming the first Korean film to take home the coveted Palme d’Or, the swanky film festival’s top prize.* I’m really not trying to invoke Ron Burgundy here but it’s kind of a big deal. Some fans have even renamed the honor the ‘Bong d’Or.’ So that’s been fun, and Parasite has been a fun movie to follow. It’s become a buzz word, a fashionable Google search ever since it first premiered, with Ho at the center of a lot of Oscartalk. Can he vie for one of those, too? Or is that just asking too much?

I tell you what would be asking too much: wanting more than what he delivers in his seventh feature film. The intrigue factor is ratcheted up constantly by a smart concept, a camera that moves voyeuristically through the intricacies of gorgeous, purpose-built sets, and Ho’s confident, playful direction. How he keeps Parasite from tipping completely into serendipity is no small feat, even though there are one or two elements here that threaten to cross the line (basement-operated light-switches, anyone? What architect thought that was a good idea?). Performances are uniformly excellent, and on multiple levels.

What’s most impressive is how Parasite fashions incredible entertainment out of a sobering reality. Ho is clearly sympathetic to the struggles of the working class and he’s put together a movie that’s both cultural and universal. This is the product of a director who has spent some 50 years watching his home transform from one of the poorest to among the most advanced industrial economies in the world. While Parasite certainly speaks to the direness of the Korean class divide its greatest strength is how it feels accessible as a human drama about dignity and decency.

* it also became THE FIRST KOREAN Film TO HAVE WON A GOLDEN GLOBE AWARD.

“….did I leave the house unlocked again?”

Recommendation: For this Bong Joon Ho newbie, Parasite is among the best movies of 2019. It’s a scathing indictment of the capitalist system that also happens to be blisteringly entertaining. Its message is creatively and powerfully delivered without being obnoxious. If you enjoy movies with sophisticated plots and that do not fit neatly into any one particular genre, Parasite should burrow deep into your skin. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 132 mins.

Quoted: “They’re rich but they’re still nice . . .”

“They’re nice because they’re rich!”

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

Photo credits: IMDb