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The Laundromat (2019)
A Struggle between a Documentary and an aloof Crime Caper
The trailer for The Laundromat is fun, slick, and even slightly irreverent. The promotion is bank-heist hip which Steven Soderbergh, director of the Ocean's 11 trilogy and the incredibly-awesome Logan Lucky, knows a thing or two about. Within that two-minute preview, Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas portray loveable buffoons with mockingly glorious accents, Meryl Streep is exasperated goodness, and an electro-funk score plays out the good times. The movie itself? Maybe the editing team for the trailer should have been given the reigns for the full release.
Based on the anonymous leaks of the Panama Papers in 2016, The Laundromat features Oldman and Banderas - whose on-screen presence alone is the saving grace of the movie - as lawyers Mossack and Fonseca who narrate the film and speak to the concept and system of money laundering. Yeah, this is a heavy subject and Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns present the info in a series of semi-comedic vignettes similar to what Adam McKay did in The Big Short and, to a lesser extent, Vice. Whereas the education of the film works, the narrative breaks down quickly and frustratingly never resets.
A bridging sequence focuses on Streep, who plays a widow seeking her justifiable settlement claim over her husband's (James Cromwell) accidental death. Streep's story is the driving focus. Her character of Ellen is charming and relatable and there isn't enough of her story. The film instead dives into tales of an African billionaire who is cheating on his family in multiple ways, a Chinese investor who seeks to break an illegal partnership with a British money launderer, and a polygamist insurance con artist. None of those asides are compelling and often ramble away with confusing conversations and plot points that are boring, unnecessary and detract from Ellen's quest of answers and, heaven forbid, justice. Justice, actually, does occur to a certain extent, yet not in a cinemagraphically compelling sense as the narrative is abandoned for word-for-word retelling of the facts.
Soderbergh excels with complex, meaningful, and yes fun, storytelling. From Sex, Lies, and Videotape's Graham to Solaris' Chris, Soderbergh's characters often seek truth and redemption. Streep's Ellen is a worthy addition, but she never receives a proper pay-off. Neither does the film. Soderbergh almost seems to struggle between wanting to present a relative and convincing documentary yet slides into a goofy and aloof crime caper that is most wanting and where the ninety-five-minute run time is lightest of sentencing.
It Comes at Night (2017)
What comes at night?
An unnamed apocalyptic event forces two families to survive together in Trey Edward Shults' It Comes At Night. The rules are simple. The front door remains bolted shut. Only go outside in pairs. And never at night. Naturally, all three commandments are blatantly dismissed yet none of those transgressions lead to a building of a frightful drama.
Beautifully shot with horrific claustrophobia, unfortunately the narrative is more snoozefest than thriller.
It Comes At Night crawls at a zombie pace yet unlike the unstoppable undead there is no face to this fear and in this film's case, the imagined threat is lacking.
Joel Edgerton stars as the father figure of a small family barricaded in a large house on a seemingly larger property. He slowly accepts Will (Christopher Abbott) and his equally-small family into the house in order for both to survive on their meager-yet-sustainable resources. As with any tight-knit thriller, paranoia grows as the threat outside encroaches. Yet neither truly happen. The perceived external threat is as solid as vaporware; the interior a masochistic misunderstanding that is more laughable than despondent.
Shults has all the ingredients of a successful genre-breaker lined up in his editing suite. Tightly-wound characters. Internal and external threats. Fear of the unknown. And a cute dog. His photography is on-the-mark creepy and the Bernard Hermann-esque score by Brian McOmber is truly fitting. What got lost in the process was a moving script. The characters do nothing. The perceived threat is no more menacing than a New England garden party. And too many unanswered questions resulting in a shoulder shrug rather than a what's next zinger. More Lucy; Less The Thing.
What comes at night? Perhaps the realization of mankind's fallacy with the reliance of late-night pizza delivery. Other than that, only Shults knows. And clearly he ain't telling.
Blinded by the Light (2019)
Fantastic music; uneven storytelling
I'm a huge Bruce fan. Have been ever since I unlocked the truth of "Born in the USA" as the anthem enjoyed its heavy AOR rotation on Philly FM. Much like Gen-X outcast Javed, the Boss spoke to me. Still does. I purchased his autobiography on Audible for the sole purpose of hearing Bruce speak directly through my ear buds. Everyone has a hungry heart. Everyone dreams of taking a wrong turn and to just keep going. Javed's heart, hungrier than mine perhaps, took Springsteen's words as gospel. Blinded By The Light is his pulpit.
The premise for the film is simple, heart-warming, and fun. Javed is a Pakistani immigrant living in a nowheresville English suburb during Maggie Thatcher's reign. Unemployment's at an all-time high. Anti-foreigner movements rage from waves of white. Javed wants to change his clothes, his hair, his face when the magic of Bruce Springsteen touches this young lad transforming his black-and-white Kansas to a Technicolor Oz. The songs are more than inspiring; they are an escape. And that's what director Gurinder Chadha presents: celluloid dreams that present the world as a better place. She did similarly with Bend it Like Beckham, another wish-fulfillment piece featuring a fish-outta-water tale.
Blinded By The Light regrettably falls off course becoming lop-sided at best, with the music of the Boss saving the show.
Adapted from the book Greetings from Bury Park by Sarfraz Manzoor, Chadha beautifully builds Javed's hometown world. The darkness at the edge of town that all teens feel, especially during the Gen-X eighties, especially for immigrant teens who are inherently set apart from their English mates. Javed is a writer and yearns for his creativity to hop onto the ever-present M1 to take root in London. But fates, and an old-world parent, are unmoving Jersey barrier. Baby, tramps like him ain't born to run. That is until the charm of the Garden State makes its way into Javed's Walkman. Javed takes Bruce's words to heart and they give him spine.
Why then does the rest of the film slam the screen door on its rightful magic? Once Javed starts dancing in the dark, the film's call-to-arms dies away and becomes Sunday matinee fluff. He gets the girl. He becomes Hayley Atwell's star pupil. He rocks the street ala Ferris Bueller. Max Weinberg's rhythm is beat. The Big Man's sax solo is played. There will be no encore. But this film rightfully deserves one. Instead, much like Javed, the film stumbles with finding an identity rolling between a political statement, a musical, or a coming of age story, resting on none.
Viveik Kalra plays the title role with spot-on sincerity and wide-eyed stardom. He is believable, and likable, and kindles the passion that burns within all Springsteen fans regardless of age, gender, and nationality. The film is successful in showing that Bruce's music adheres to no borders yet gets all Disney friendly with relationship resolution.
Blinded By The Light preaches the Gospel According to Bruce in a typical Hollywood fashion. The believers may nod with righteous hallelujahs while praying the uninitiated turn from their heathen ways. The Holy Land might be in Freehold but truly exists in speakers and ear buds belonging to us all.
Crazy film perfect for a Tuesday night
A good action movie is like a classic meat-and-potatoes meal; standard fare that although might be seasoned differently is both filling and unsurprising. Occasionally a genre-breaking film will surprise everyone and pop open a bottle of Malbec to serve with a little filet mignon. Usually? The plot, situation, even the action itself, is as recycled as a hot dog washed down with a Coors Light. Forgettable. Ordinary. Monotonous. Then there is Polar.
The film is Irish-carbomb crazy; chopped meat that's charbroiled yet still pink-on-the-inside, along with plenty of extra cheese.
The film's plot is insanely generic. Older hitman seeks retirement but his boss won't let him go. In fact, said boss, a maniacal Matt Lucas who was given free reign of Elton John's wardrobe circa 1987, would much rather see Duncan (Mads Mikklesen) dead than pay him his owed bank. A squad of diverse goons head out in hopes of retiring Duncan in cleverly ridiculous ways only to discover - shock - that old Duncan is more wily than initially estimated. Silliness ensues.
The slick camera-work and kinetic editing is an over-the-top, ADD-infused assault. Think Tony Scott helming John Wick. Adapted from a Dark Horse graphic novel and directed by Jonas Åkerlund, Polar looks like a full-length Rammstein music video, albeit scored by Deadmau5, and comes complete with Instagram-worthy title cards.
The film is soaked with annoying characters, absurd situations (Richard Dreyfuss on karaoke, anyone?), and a devilish weapon-fetish. Duncan, however, hi-jacks the film with his heart of plated gold, a desire for a pet, and the smooth handling of an axe.
Every plot point was slashed to bits with a dull sword. Betrayals were telegraphed as subtlety as a missile strike. And the ending was as secure as an A-Team mission. Through all that, Polar is deep-fried fun that makes an otherwise-forgettable Tuesday night slightly more memorable.
If only there were an explanation of the film's title...
Finding Steve McQueen (2019)
Entertaining heist flick
Everyone loves a good genre film and the heist film is certainly one of Hollywood's favorite charms. A craft as revered as William Goldman and Elmore Leonard. As cool as a Tarantino-curated soundtrack. And why not? Those stories feed into inherent impulses. An underdog sticking it to The Man. The Anybody gambling for a life as a Somebody. Thieving out of sport. Or need. At times, crime does not pay in the glitzy cinematic world. That unlikely hero fails. And falls. Worlds are destroyed. Irreparable harm befalls both innocents and the not-so. Other times? Ah, other times everything simply works out.
Based on the startlingly-real but mostly-unreported 1972 United California Bank Robbery, the film Finding Steve McQueen narrates one of the largest bank robberies in US history. Much like the quiet nature of the actual robbery, this underdog film suffered a criminal VOD release instead of well-deserving theatrical accolades.
Screenwriter and Southern California News Group reporter Keith Sharon broke the story of Harry Barber - bank robber, getaway man, and Steve McQueen idol - in his Stealing Nixon's Millions expose, later serialized in his true crime podcast Crime Beat. Barber, along with professional-criminal Enzo Rotella (a delightful William Fichtner who brings a meal of prosciutto and provolone along with his SAG credentials) and a crew from Youngstown, Ohio, steal away to Laguna Niguel, CA where, apparently, President Richard Nixon stashed over $30 million; election money absconded from the Dairy Farmers' Association. The robbery was a success but the story, much like this film, went mostly unheard.
The film, directed by Mark Steven Johnson, cleverly jumps around in time setting Harry's new small-town life against the daring heist, and the FBI's manhunt, led by a French horn-playing Forest Whitaker. Johnson fashions a more comedic look at the heist genre. More Old Man & The Gun; less Reservoir Dogs. And the style works. Travis Fimmel plays out Barber with equal parts McQueen fetishism and wide-eyed "What, me worry?" enthusiasm. Fimmel sells the role. Barber not only wins the heart of Molly Murphy (Rachael Taylor), but his aw-shucks honesty makes him that perfect Anybody. One that deserves to be a Somebody.
Finding Steve McQueen is a fun ride complete with an 8-track's worth of 70s pop-culture references and music. The film weaves to the genre beats yet for all of its real-life incredibleness, doesn't pop those points to their best. Perhaps it's the honesty of the tale, or too much silliness, but the film ultimately downplays the usual genre tropes and regrettably eliminates the amped-up thrill, taming the crime, and restricting the heat between Barber and Murphy.
Unusual, ridiculous, honest, fun, Finding Steve McQueen is an entertaining heist flick that successfully steals the time and deserves a happy ending.
Five Came Back (2017)
Raw, heroic, and beautiful
War, what is it good for, the song asks. Absolutely nothing? Perhaps. But back in the 1940s, it was a nearly essential response to depose an abomination and dismantle his fear machine. American forces quickly learned that other than boots on the ground and bombs in the air, one of the best ways to win was with words. And pictures. Moving pictures at that.
With more than half of all adult Americans going to the cinema at least once a week (they aren't call the good old days for nothing!) America fought back with movies. Perhaps the official term was propaganda. Regardless. Movies!
The Netflix mini-series Five Came Back details these movies through the eyes, works, and efforts of five of the top filmmakers of their generation by actually documenting the war from the front line. The five? Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, William Wyler and George Stevens. Men at the top of their game who risked their lives - both professionally and, well, physically (they went to war) - because they believed in service of something greater. The Axis had to be stopped and this was the best way they knew how.
Five Came Back shows their pictures intercut with archival interviews. Their tales are raw, heroic, and beautiful.
To bring a modern day viewpoint into this incredible story, director Laurent Bouzereau interviews five present-day directors - Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Greengrass, Guillermo Del Toro, Laurence Kasdan, and oh yeah, Steven Spielberg. Each bring context and understanding to the others' achievements, both in Hollywood and on the front line. The impact each of the five had on the war. The ultimate impact the war had on each of them.
Three episodes. A beginning-middle-end of not only the primarily-European campaign, but also of the Five's cinematic life. Episode three wraps cleaner and perhaps more positively than it ought to have. All Five struggled after the war. There were more tales to be told. But isn't that the baseline craft of propaganda?
This is not... Us
Jordan Peele no doubt wants each of his artistic creations to stand on their own.
They do. And they should.
The Academy Award-winning behemoth that is Get Out will always be his benchmark. And rightfully so. That said, for his sophomore film, Us, as enjoyable as it is, is a tougher film to get in.
Whereas Get Out could be plainly viewed as a thriller, the viewer is dared to dive deeper into the social commentary for an ironically more-satisfying story. With Us, Peele is asking for a much deeper, and not quite as refreshing dive. Us is beautifully made and fantastically acted. Lupita Nyong'o elevates every film she is in. Academy take note: she has space on a shelf for more Oscar gold. She plays the matriarch of a normal family out on vacation who must soon race from death, and scissors, by insane jumpsuit-wearing versions of themselves. "We're Americans," the mirror-mirror version of Nyong'o boasts. True that, but for a voyeuristic film, Peele keeps any origin-story insights in a tight, ahem, twilight zone.
Peele clearly has a message to broadcast on duality. Everyone wears masks; some are simply more noticeable. He is asking the viewer to decide on which shadow runs the longest. Unfortunately this duality makes Us a more uneven film than it should be.
Us isn't sure if it should be slasher horror or a meta comedy. As a result, the horror scenes appear unintentionally humorous. The comedic beats too much of a stretch.
If anything, the film is original. And enjoyable. Unfortunately, his Shyamalan-istic reveal is more of head scratcher than head turner.
Triple Frontier (2019)
A standard plod through the jungle
Stop me if you've heard this already.
Batman, Poe Dameron, and King Arthur walk into a bar. They team-up to stop a vile drug lord and rob him along the way. Rather dynamic, right? Top flight action stars. Type-A leaders with machismo laced on each fiber of beard scruff. Good avenging evil and making a little loot on the side.
Why, then, does Triple Frontier fail to crank this amp up to eleven?
Triple Frontier screams of a big, theatrical film and has a high-caliber cast along as its proof. Writing, directing, and producing teams are all of Academy Award-pedigree. Yet the Netflix release is a standard plod through the jungle with CCR and Metallica on the accompanying soundtrack. The story is good, the characters lively, but the lack of escalated conflict drops the potential of this one down to the mundane.
The tale, half military covert ops, half heist flick, fits into writer/director JC Chandor's ongoing cinematic themes of dealing with the environment of a bad decision. Robert Redford did it in his old man and the sea film All Is Lost. Oscar Isaac tried to take on mobbed-up oil companies in A Most Violent Year. Looking for more, he's back with Chandor, but this time as a tired CIA agent. He wants the bad guys unequivocally stopped. He wants success for the grunts on his team who are clearly not successful back home in the real world. And he has a plan. But plans in heist flicks never go right. What's the point? There is excitement in that turmoil. There is entertainment in that edge. Triple Frontier maintains a steady pace that certainly makes for good visuals, but never raises the blood pressure. The turmoil never boils over; the edge is a wide avenue.
An entertaining, steady offering from Netflix, Triple Frontier provides a real-life glimpse into real-life problems. Sometimes, though, you need slam-bang action from a superhero. The sleek escape from a starship pilot. The pulse of this chase is missing that adrenaline shot. And the bar has already made its last call.
Meandering story, but beautiful to watch
Forget Alfonso Cuarón's smooth camera work and his technical attention and his ability to wreak havoc in the background while his foregrounds remain calm and focused. Instead, watch "Roma" and pay attention to Cuarón the photographer who can bring beauty and life to a million shades of gray.
Filmed in a black-and-white palate that is more beautiful than the colors of Las Vegas, "Roma" is Cuarón's love letter to movies and to life. Cuarón is already a master filmmaker, known for his sweeping battle action from "Children of Men" and his zero-g wizardry on "Gravity". With "Roma", he presents a story of a smaller scale, that of a simple maid with her base desires and human dreams. His craft remains deceivingly technical. Cameras pan through the corridors of the family house, up stairs, and down driveways. Frolicking on the street with zooming VW Super Beetles and wide Mercurys. Surf crashing on an empty beach. Cuarón's scenes are perfectly set with a peaceful focus while chaos erupts all around, be that the happy noise of life, a sob of regret, or the fury of a riot.
However, it is the world happening in the background that is entirely more appealing than the quiet existence of Cleo, the worker/nanny of the house. Yes, "Roma" is Cleo's slice of life tale, but the day-to-day intrigue of the family's dissolving, not to mention the political underpinnings of Mexico City circa 1971, are tempting and raw in ways that Cleo's polite smile are harmless and safe. Safe, in the end, might make for a nice happy ending, but not always a compelling movie.
Obviously Cuarón wants to showcase such documentation as proof that workers like Cleo or his own nanny, Libo, are not silent; that their tale is just as important. As a narrative, Cuarón fails in this regard. The audience might like Cleo, and perhaps even understand her, but her meandering storyline is a small shadow on an otherwise rich tapestry.
A slow burn on an apocalyptic scale
The 2018 Panos Cosmatos film "Mandy" could very well have been released in 1978, directed by John Carpenter or Tobe Hooper, and, aside from Nic Cage's Academy Award-winning visage, no one would be the wiser. Featuring a crazed cult, motorcycle-riding demons, over-saturated film stock, and, well, Nic Cage wielding a custom axe, "Mandy" is a slow burn on an apocalyptic scale.
"Mandy" has garnered devilish amounts of praise from horror/sci-fi/retro-revenge film fans, and deservedly so. The film delivers big time on the camp-crazy, the weirdo-bizarre, and the trippy-unexplained. Unfortunately, the film is frustratingly slow with heavy exposition, long walks, and dreamy dialogue. When the big payoff finally arrives - and c'mon, a chainsaw fight! - relief is felt, not satisfaction.
Cage plays Red, a lumberjack looking for payback after Linus Roache's New Age cult has his woman, the eponymous Mandy, killed for laughing at his fantasies. Roache's Jerimiah summons forth demonic bikers (as I think demonic bikers were easily summoned in a pre-Reddit 1983, but you know, just go with it) to stop a vengeful Red, who focuses his wrath into forging a Conan-worthy axe, a talent most lumberjack's probably tend to hide from their public. Demons and humans alike fall in spectacularly-dismembered messes. The blood does boil, but it simmers for an eternity.
Cosmatos, to his credit, strives to elevate this VHS-worthy, goofy slasher throwback with art house cinema faire. The mustache-twirling baddie twirls with a cause. Cage, likewise, is able to ham it up enough to bring back those fond memories of "Leaving Las Vegas" and "Raising Arizona". In the end, "Mandy" is more like "Eaten Alive", less like "Stranger Things".
Lazzaro felice (2018)
odd yet beautiful film
The first act of the Italian film Happy As Lazzaro focuses on naïve, worker-bee Lazzaro, an all-around good-guy who's as gullible as Charlie Brown. He, along with his fellow working community, is exploited by a tobacco heiress as unwitting sharecroppers. Unfortunately, further references to Steve Martin's The Jerk stop there. Lazzaro falls into a unique, albeit one-sided, friendship with the heiress' son, Tancredi, Tancredi, of course, is a bored dreamer who has everything; Lazzaro's a dreamer of the opposite order. While lyrics from folk-rockers Moxy Fruvous' "King of Spain" might come to mind, a song detailing the switching of identity to alter responsibilities, writer/director Alice Rohrwacher sings a decidedly different art house tune. The film changes tactics and shows a displaced Lazzaro alone in the big city, still trying to appease friends and foes alike with disastrous effects. Good grief.
Happy As Lazzaro is gorgeously shot on super 16mm film, which feels like a special treat from 1989. Rohrwacher keeps her dialogue at a minimum trusting Adriano Tardiolo's eyes and body language as the storyteller. The trade off is the loose story wanders as easily as Lazzaro's daydreams. Lazzaro is a likeable round character, yet as the story grows in complexity, he retreats in his innocence. Rohrwacher no doubt deliberately creates this conflict as her morality play grows into a fable, but the ultimate treatment of the character is as unfulfilling as it is sermonizing.
Lazzaro is the analogous common worker, never rewarded for his efforts. He is used, removed, and replaced as often as this tale's format. To tally the scores once again, the 1% have 100, the Dreamers, 0. Maybe nothing has changed since 1989.
Lazzaro may remain happy, but viewers might rather indulge in the Italian scenery.
By-The-Books Thriller, yet Fun Sci-Fi
The alien invasion plot is an industry standard that is now as boilerplate as Batman's origin and Netflix's "Extinction" upholds this formula in a by-the-books thriller yet manages to present the film in a slick and entertaining way. Yes, there is a plot twist deep in the third act that is satisfying and, believe it or not, even a little surprising, which helps provide an explanation in a Marvel No-Prize sort of way for the rather stilted performance from a usually affable Michael Pena.
For all of the standardization this film brings, such as video-game quality f/x and aliens that look like extras from the set of Doctor Who, "Extinction" does succeed with showcasing the family dynamic during wartime. Pena's Peter is not a macho alpha male who goes all John McClane when the bullets start a'flying, but instead pauses, and thinks; he plans on how to get his family to survive. His actions are believable and are truly what makes an average direct-release sci-fi flick all the more enjoyable.
Plus, Sweet Christmas, Luke Cage guest stars.
SciFi blast for cliché crime caper
The future can be scary, and that's exactly how writer/director Andrew Niccol (Gattica) likes it. Niccol's latest, Anon, directly distributed by Netflix, takes social media privacy scares and concerns and makes those issues a substantial threat as every event every single person sees is stored forever in an Orwell-ian cloud. Anon presents an original, albeit disturbing, viewpoint on how deep privacy can be regarded making this future world as scary as it is believable. Digital ads the size of buildings can be seen as an on-board Alexa/Siri/Samantha can direct listeners for every step they take, as someone is always watching you, until they hack you.
Clive Owen stars as a detective in a nameless city under a perpetually gray twilight sky who has access to these personal, individual records. He's a gruff, tired-looking cop who smokes (so hey, at least that vice is still around in the near future) as much as he plays voyeur into his, as well others', memories. However, hackers who work off the grid can be paid in order to edit, thus hide, certain memories. One hacker has taken to killing such individuals and Owen is tasked to stop the murderer.
Anon, played by Amanda Seyfried, is a hip hi-tech cat that proves her prowess by slowly hacking into Owen's own visuals, distorting what he is seeing, be that a clear intersection that is actually jamming, or an empty elevator car instead of an empty elevator shaft. The tech premise is extraordinary, tempering the best of what science-fiction at its core is supposed to offer, as the presented threat is real and believable.
Alas, all good science fiction does have its limits, as does Anon, and this neo-noir thriller exposes its fatal flaws in the programming. Once this world and its technology have been explored to its limits, the crime element of the narrative forgoes all its collective coolness resulting in a typical whodunnit-style mystery that fizzles into a who-cares climax. Owen makes a good cop, but apparently gumshoe clichés, like tobacco and the vintage cars driving throughout, remain woefully relevant. Maybe the true magic lies ahead in allowing rogue editor to hack together a more fitting finale.
Icarus, much like its mythological namesake, starts out openly enough. Writer/director Bryan Fogel, obviously undergoing a mid-life crisis, seeks to rise above his competition and win an long-eluded amateur bike race by subscribing to a doping program ala Lance Armstrong and Tyler Hamilton. His gonzo-ish film about cheating the system then takes a serious turn as he flies extremely close to the sun by becoming involved with Russian doping superstar, Grigory Rodchenkov, just prior to the 2016 summer Olympics and Russian scandal – the doping scandal that is, taking into consideration another very serious scandal that occurred in the United States later that year in November, an event this film alludes to.
Fogel's film presents a complete analysis of Russia's athletic doping program and its pervasive influence on all of its athletes while providing a revealing look at how the conspiracy came to light leading to the eventual banning of 68 Russian athletes from Rio. The documentary is so compelling you cannot look away.
Rodchenkov, who comes across as a favorite crazy uncle, blasts away on camera with truths and proofs that lead to WADA and the IOC's landmark decision. Rodchenkov equally has no problems with broadcasting his opinions concerning President Vladimir Putin's fear-laden regime. If Putin and the KGB can easily evade the IOC, imagine what other high-level larceny exists that can be used to, ahem, trump other standards.
Icarus presents art dictating life, where one rather flaky story uncovers a very-real conspiracy that affects so many. This is not merely a sports documentary, rather a politically human one with real consequences, and needs to be viewed. Here's hoping the Academy's nomination committee is taking note, as Icarus has the potential to win gold of its own.
Video-Game Action; Direct-Release Scripting
Let's play nice and call Spectral an homage to a heap of sci-fi films and not a mash-up of clichés from all that has come before. A mash-up, yes, but certainly a nice-looking one at that.
James Badge Dale, proving he had leading-man chops, as evident from HBO's The Pacific, stars in first-time director Nic Mathieu's sci-fi muscle film that provides more hardcore military meat than a Michael Bay Transformers film. Dale plays a scientist invested in designing protective tech for the US Army of the very-near future when he is assigned to accompany a Delta Force unit on the field in Moldova who have encountered, well, ghosts. Ghosts that can fly through walls and humans, the latter of which immediately perishes upon contact.
Mathieu's constantly-moving camera-work and in-your-face visuals are slick and surprisingly high-quality, thanks to the use of Weta for the F/X work. The story, however, is nothing more than an outline for the big-bang shoot 'em-ups and creepy apparitions. The Delta Force team members are mostly faceless fodder smacking of, but lacking the charisma of, the marines from Aliens; they even rescue a blonde girl who has been scavenging and hiding out safe from the ghosts in the inner workings of an old factory. Later, when Delta has the chance to regroup and restock, they are luckily holed up with enough provisions and workable gear that would make B.A. Baracus smile with glee, welding torch in hand.
The overall premise of Spectral makes for fun viewing. The film's a fast-paced video game where the viewer doesn't mind playing the third person role. And while the story briefly describes the HOW of the ghosts, the WHY is untouched resulting in an unfulfilled feeling as the convenient failsafe stopping the threat is thrown allowing the credits roll. The quick wrap-up makes you think that if there were a couple more available quarters to feed into the slot, the story could continue with a more satisfying ending.
Luke Cage (2016)
CAGE needs more Power, Man
Marvel has had a successful outing on Netflix, and the latest, Luke Cage, certainly has all the makings of a another hit by the numbers. Critically speaking, this is the most disappointing of Marvel's three series. By no means is Luke Cage awful, rather, lacking at best and, for two episodes anyway, even downright boring.
Huge props to Mike Colter who plays the titular hero with swag, class and charm. This series has definitely shown that not only is he a good actor, but he can definitely lift the lifeblood of a show on his large, 2XL-shoulders, something that was questionable during his guest-star appearances on Jessica Jones.
What Luke Cage was lacking was an intense, and let's face it, better-written villain. Mahershala Ali's Cottonmouth had the potential to be something great – a Kingpin for Harlem, a character that has good intentions, but uses questionable means for execution – but was dispatched entirely too early for the inevitable rise and fall. Erik LaRay Harvey's Diamondback was an ill-fitting substitute antagonist; a cliché comicbook villain with a one- note revenge scheme and an invisible moustache to twirl.
Marvel has been doing its best to ground these Netflix heroes, but in doing so, should have looked to past, counter to what Pops always told Luke, and instead of creating a super- powered force for the big street brawl, and maintained a Lou-Ferrigno-as-the-Hulk beat- down of goons with guns while smashing through walls. Sweet Christmas, that would have shown some power, man.
Year of the Living Dead (2013)
A DVD Featurette unholy expanded
Like it or not, George A. Romero truly is the father of today's horror cinema. The original "Dead" trilogy – NIGHT, DAWN, and DAY – accomplish that simple truth in unveiling a very human metaphor wrapped in the grisly package of blood-letting entertainment. And why not celebrate the man and his accomplishments? Perhaps dig deep into the motives and industry tales of movie-making. Perhaps that is what Rob Kuhns set out to do with his BIRTH OF THE LIVING DEAD documentary. Unfortunately, the data unearthed in BIRTH OF THE LIVING DEAD could have been a solid DVD featurette. Instead, an additional 40 minutes of repetitiveness was added, dragging the film down as a lumbering, undead walker.
To its credit, BIRTH sets the stage of 1968 America, when NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was released, quite well providing key insights to the civil rights movement as well as to the fact that NIGHT stars an African American. Likewise, the documentary gets right into how – and why – the film was made and some of the issues and trickery Romero and his crew employed during production and editing; Romero himself is presented as both jolly and candid.
Then the film rinses and repeats. And repeats. And, oh, did you forget that NIGHT starred an African American? Well hold on tight, you'll be reminded in just a few short minutes as horror film director Larry Fessenden will tell you how great the original film is and repeat the lines verbatim for the camera.
Granted, the docu's subject is NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, but that topic alone screams out for accompaniment. There was absolutely no mention of the 1990 remake, nor the 2004 remake of DAWN. And obviously the most apparent of Romero's offspring – THE WALKING DEAD – is only shown as a background image.
Kuhns showed the historical relevance of NIGHT, but only provided the merest taste of its social impact, a taste that was sorely missed.
The awful TOOTH about TUSK
Amusing and certainly original, TUSK makes a nice mockery of the horror-torture clique without becoming an all-out parody. Unfortunately, when the film obligingly reaches into the realm of the complete ridiculous, the cleverness of it all falls apart. What TUSK does to correctly, and does well, is rely on the one strength of writer/director Kevin Smith: fantastic situational dialogue.
Smith is, when he wants to rise from his all-too easy reliance of mediocre potty humor, a good story-teller. He knows how to sculpt and pace dialogue, to craft an engaging tale, and how to mix in well-timed humor. Examples of such are immediately evident in three scenes: Wallace (Justin Long) in the Canadian convenience store, Howard Howe's (Michael Parks) introduction, and Guy Lapoint's flashback tale. The story itself is both comical and disturbing in a self-deprecating way, but a messy third act is ambiguous in deciding which swim lane to take – deadpan horrific or goofy schlock. The straddle ultimately presented leaves the film unfulfilled.
Smith being Smith, is an equally-opportunity offender making fun of Canadians, podcasters, mustaches, and Latino accents. Regrettably, a majority of the film's blatant third-act humor comes as the result of the ridiculousness of the "guest-star," setting the final focus of the film as murky as aquarium pool water drastically deviating away from any self-righteous statements on horror-torture films but also of any clever wittiness.
Suspenseful. Alluring. Slow.
STOKER is a surprisingly decent indie film written by an American television actor, directed by a Korean known for violent action flicks, all told in a suspenseful vein that Alfred Hitchcock would find suitably satisfactory, especially with the themes presented within: loner child, daddy issues, ignorant mother, suspicious uncle and death, death, death.
Mia Wasikowska is India, the likeably-cliché intelligent teen who turns her focus from the ridicule suffered at school and the inattention of her depressed mother – the un-aging Nicole Kidman – to that of her mysteriously-alluring uncle, who may have clues regarding her father's death from when she was a child. Uncle Charles, played straight faced-creepy by Matthew Goode, offers India freedom, knowledge and empowerment as well as a few lessons that aren't always part of the standard learning curve.
Chan-wook Park constructs a visually beautiful movie that perfectly reflects the images, dreams and even memories that would belong to a solitary young woman, all which provide visual clues to the mystery at large. The excellent score by Clint Mansell completes the imagery. However, the first act of the film is terribly slow as the images alone don't move the narrative forward. Likewise, India's journey becomes too forced in order to reach the film's resolution. Park appears to be more interested in the look of the mystery than getting into the actual character impetus behind that mystery.
STOKER is an enjoyable film to watch. The film is also a killer to get frustrated over.
Cool but forgettable
Danny Boyle's latest, TRANCE, contains many elements that made his previous films so successful: kinetic photography, slick editing, a killer electronic soundtrack, hip dialogue, and a heist too good to be true. By those standards alone, Boyle's TRANCE is a fun, twisty ride. Unfortunately, the film is also derivative, shallow and frustrating.
An art heist gone wrong requires Simon (James McAvoy) to seek the council of Dr. Lamb, a hypnotist (Rosario Dawson), in order to recover stolen, and now forgotten, artwork in order to pay off his debits to underworld baddie Franck, played by the always-cool Vincent Cassel. A fun play on the typical whodunit motif kicks in as the viewer is drawn into Simon's sympathetic plight and intrigued by Lamb's involvement as her trances procures more and more information from Simon's damaged mind.
Unfortunately, the film devolves into trickery previously seen – and better played at – in INCEPTION as the twist – oh yes, of course there is a big twist – is unsubtly thrown into the criminal mix coming as a surprise to only those, like Simon, with brain damage. McAvoy's character rapidly deteriorates into an anti-hero that no one would care about while Franck is nearly elevated into the heroic role, but at a point way too late in the story to capture the viewer's emotional buy- in. Dawson's Lamb, also goes through monumental changes, but for most of the film she is simply presented as eye candy, which simply relegates her character to a boring cliché of the femme fatale role.
TRANCE does entertain and is fun to watch and be carried away with. Of course, this would all be better if it could also be forgotten with the snapping of fingers.
SUPERHEROES. Fighting for Truth, Justice and their own Comicbook.
Hollywood has perhaps reached its saturation point with comic book and superhero movies with every film now becoming more of an event: a-list stars, groundbreaking f/x, tie-ins, lead-ins and hints at a larger universe packed with even more superheroes. Maybe it's time to take a step back. Show a real hero, totally DIY. Mike Barnett has attempted this.
The WATCHMEN Blu-ray set contains a featurette interviewing "real life" superheroes. Mostly these were young men wearing bulky costumes of sewn together sports equipment and pronounced delusions of grandeur; although one interviewee was ex-military and simply patrolled as a concerned citizen in fatigues and a buzz cut. The HBO documentary SUPERHEROES amps this idea into a feature-length spectacle.
Mike Barnett presents a typical day-in-the-life perspective of the non- typical man-in-tights. Or clunky plastic armor. With names, among others, like Mr. Xtreme, Zimmer and, ahem, Master Legend. Although their hearts are in the right place, a food-and-clothing drive conducted and distributed to and for the homeless of San Diego being a very worthy effort, their heads most definitely are not. Barnett shows these heroes as misguided - Mr. Xtreme possess no guide in life other than comicbooks, which he reads obsessively in his van – publicity-seeking – an unintentionally-hilarious Master Legend drinks and cavorts with college girls in that crime-ridden gotham of Orlando – or thrill-seeking – the NYC-based Zimmer who patrols dark streets just looking for a head to bash in.
Unfortunately, Barnett's docu never presents a clear viewpoint. Are these losers real and sympathetic, slaves to a worthy ideal? Or are they to be mocked at? Severely. Throughout the film the viewer does both. But they shouldn't. At times, the film appears to be as just as a rambling mess as Mr. Xtreme on patrol: sometimes boring, at times embarrassingly cringe-worthy. Also unfortunately, the preventing of crimes, or exacting flying fists of justice as Zimmer so obviously wants, never occurs. Giant aliens don't attack. There are no criminal masterminds' plans to foil. Not even a simple grab-and-run from the local 7-Eleven. This exacerbates the question running through the whole film: so what?
Hey, if anything, the film invites you to grab a drink with Master Legend. He has a Facebook page.
A most excellent look at a personage of historical significance
Daniel Day-Lewis steals the show as the title character in LINCOLN, but by all rights, the film itself could have been named "AMENDMENT XIII" as the second act's energy, as well as most of the third, is focused on the debate in the House to abolish slavery nearly leaving Lincoln himself as just a witness to history while a cast of character actors from screens both big and small pound tables and chests alike in a grandiose fashion.
Director Steven Spielberg, and his long-time cinematic director of photography Janusz Kaminski, created a gorgeous movie where they carefully and beautifully frame each shot allowing the audience to play historical witness. Similar to Spielberg's work in MUNICH, the camera is expertly placed, rarely moving, allowing for a perfect spectacle of a scene: be it the aftermath of a bloody battle, the always-smoky rooms where speech itself has somewhere to hide, a rocking chair on a rickety floor that looks ancient even for 1865, or the bright, winter sunlight filtered through the gauze of a window furnishing or a washed-out flag. Likewise, Day-Lewis himself is always framed, the camera accenting on his height, catching the lines in the gray of his face as he bears the weight of a nation divided playing equal parts father, preacher, lawyer and, most of all, grand storyteller.
The film, however, keenly focuses on those individual glances but the overall story itself is not as put-together. A series of poignant, incredibly-acted, well-constructed scenes are displayed; each scene a marvelous production complete with conflict, character exposition and beautiful dialogue. Yet these scenes are nearly staged as free-standing productions by themselves and, other than the overarching story detailing the end of Civil War and the proposition of Amendment XIII, miss any flow connecting them and strengthening that overall narrative.
Again, it is the presence of Day-Lewis who provides the human touch to the drama of politics. Amidst the yelling and the smoke and the death that incorporates nearly every scene, Day-Lewis' Abraham Lincoln has the ability to smile and, in a move completely foreign to modern-day presidents, sit and speak with the everyday man. He knows this is who is fighting his war and also knows that these very same people will find their own strength to rebuild America. Like a grandfather, he has stories to tell bringing relevance and peace to the chaos of the day, just not his with own family where a slightly-miscast Sally Field, playing Mrs. Lincoln, adds embarrassment and strife while Joseph Gordon- Levitt, as Lincoln's eldest, wants to be the attention-grabbing rebellious son but at least maintains his nobility, even when being ignored.
Spielberg elevates the spirit of the man, in a similar manner to what he accomplished with Oskar Schindler, by bringing relevance and importance to that man's place in history. Spielberg shows a man who was able to work both with and around Congress, wanted peace badly enough to fight for it and was taken much too abruptly leaving any future potential into the smoke of history.
Spirit of Vengeance: charred, but not hot
The fact that Ghost Rider is a b-comicbook character at best should bring no surprise that a movie of said character would be of similar ilk. GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE is the ultimate b-movie complete with b-grade actors (welcome back to the silver screen Christopher Lambert), a generic plot (the only way for the devil's power to survive is by taking over the young body of his progeny), lots of guns, a villainous threat whose true evil power is the insane amount of cliché dialogue, and a feisty damsel in distress. Yet movies like these always have a way of capturing a little of that comicbook magic empowering their young-ish fanboy fanbase with elements of cool.
This sequel finds Nic Cage hiding out from the world – and his curse – in Eastern Europe where he rambles about evil as his eyeballs bug out of their sockets. When not being a true-to-life documentary showcase, Cage reprises his role as the quirky and sometimes-demonic Johnny Blaze who gets thrown into action alongside the always-hip Idris Elba, who is apparently the go-to guy for comicbook actions films – this being his third.
Gone is the forced romance from the first film. Instead, directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor focus on Blaze's anguish and a cure for his curse. The directors also get clever with the Rider's look giving him a simple, charred look like he's been on the grill for a week too long, adding to the anguish. Their choppy editing and shaky camera work lend to the Nu Metal look that is very chic in Hot Topic.
Unfortunately, the film's simplistic plot gets too convoluted degrading further into the typical you've-seen-it-a-million-times-before shoot 'em up and highway chase scene. Ghost Rider's dialogue is kept to a minimum as much as Cage's is not – but he never gets to truly cut loose into a- quality action, even though it appeared that the f/x budget would allow such, and, surprisingly, doesn't get a lot of face time. And a Ghost Rider film without Ghost Rider, is just another bravura performance of Cage's body language.
GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE offers a fun, but not all-together great, look at property that has the potential to be so much hotter.
The "Fake Picture" becomes a real hit
In the film ARGO, producer Lester Siegel, played by Academy Award winner Alan Arkin, puts forth real effort into making a fake film a success as a perfect ruse to rescue six wanted Americans hiding at the Canadian Ambassador's residence during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. The triple-threat of Ben Affleck (ARGO's Producer-Director-Star) must have channeled the spirit of Siegel (the character for the film was the amalgamation of real-life f/x coordinator Bob Sidell and producer Barry Gellar) as he, along with fellow producers and Hollywood heavies George Clooney and Grant Heslov, created a very real, very memorable film crafted with the utmost of professionalism in detailing the story's plight and rescue.
Affleck ups his game with his third directorial stint and moves away not only from his usual Boston locales but also from the present day. In doing so, he completely immerses the viewer into the period of the film. Alongside the requisite horror show that was the 70s fashion style as well as carefully-placed Star Wars memorabilia – that no doubt brought a tear to the eyes of fanboy friend Kevin Smith – Affleck restaged the storming of the US embassy with the all-too real documentary feel and cast lesser-known actors into the roles of the Americans allowing their performance, not their celebrity status, to carry the show.
Interchanged with this, is the flawless, and at times welcoming, editing of the situation in LA as Affleck's character, CIA operative Tony Mendez, wheels and deals with Hollywood to create a tight cover story, the kind that only Tinseltown can. Affleck portrays LA as an open, bright and aloof place, contrasting the tight, grainy and oppressive situation in Tehran. Modern-day Hollywood itself makes the most subtle of appearances during the film's climax through some of the drama during the airport escape including an almost-forced chase scene.
Backed with John Goodman's smile and Bryan Cranston barking orders like he's on the set of a Glen Larson TV show, Affleck delicately builds the tension leading up to the escape. Much like Cameron's TITANTIC, the ending of the film is known, but the wielding of the personal dynamics, which is just one of reasons that made THE TOWN so incredibly good, proves Affleck's acumen. Affleck provides a fast-paced, suspenseful and, at times, humorous film that makes for great storytelling. Even more importantly, ARGO furthers solidifies Affleck's talent as writer/director and distancing himself from his roles in a host of truly-poor rom-coms and actioneers from the early 2000's.
The Town (2010)
A great spotlight for Affleck's talents
Let's admit to a solemn truth here: heist flicks are as formulaic as any other genre film. One grand heist leads to another, more often than not there is at least one car chase, the alpha male falls for a woman, said male decides to leave his life of crime, which leads to his final escape, be that successful or not.
Let's now subscribe to another truth, this one more recent: Ben Affleck has matured well beyond his Armageddon and PEARL HARBOR foibles both in front of and, perhaps even more importantly, behind the camera. THE TOWN, then, is beautiful example of the craft of the heist formula executed perfectly and proves that Affleck, his second outing as a director, is one helluva storyteller.
Based on the Chuck Hogan novel "Prince Of Thieves", THE TOWN follows a bank robbing troupe led by Affleck with Academy Award nominee Jeremy Renner along for the ride and overseen by the late, great Pete Postlethwaite all while being pursued by Jon Hamm's G-Man. Aside from the life-as-a-criminal angle, significant insight is given to Affleck and Renner's relationship, complete with daddy-issues – performed in a killer scene by Chris Cooper – and the budding romance with Rebecca Hall. The drama in these characters' lives proves to be just as strong and important as that of the robberies themselves.
And that grand heist? None other than the theft of ticket sales from Fenway Stadium and Affleck even films inside the holy internal works of the Green Monster. Affleck's direction throughout the film is meticulous and tight showing the audience his exact view on the story itself.
THE TOWN is an entertaining, well-executed movie and a great vehicle for spotlighting Affleck's talents. Also, it should be noted, this is the film that got Renner his recent super-hero and spy gigs and, more importantly, should have brought him an Oscar as well, the absence of which is the true crime here.