Polar


Portrait of a badass.

(2019) Action (Netflix) Mads Mikkelsen, Vanessa Hudgens, Katheryn Winnick, Fei Ren, Ruby O. Fee, Matt Lucas, Robert Maillet, Anthony Grant, Josh Cruddas, Lovina Yavan, Ayisha Issa, Pedro Miguel Arce, Anastasia Marinina, Martin Zolotarev, Richard Dreyfuss, Johnny Knoxville, Inga Cadranel, Jill Frappier, Nia Roam, Julian Richings, Roman Lebeau, Sofia Grossi. Directed by Jonas Åkerlund

 

It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen Polar that it is based on a graphic novel. Everything about the movie screams “comic book,” from the color palette to the emphasis on feminine boot-ay and boobies, to the well-choreographed mayhem that takes place with a surfeit of blood and gore.

Duncan (Mikkelsen) works as an assassin-for-hire for the Damocles Corporation, where he is known as the Black Kaiser. He is nearing the mandatory retirement age of 50 and looks forward to receiving his pension and retiring to his remote Montana home. Unfortunately for him, the company’s corpulent owner Blut (Lucas) is looking to sell and needs to maximize its value. A clause in the contract says that if employees die without a will, the pension goes back to the company. Blut aims to kill all the veteran assassins who largely have had no relationships over the years and use the money to prop up the liquid cash holdings of the company. A true Republican move, that.

But Duncan isn’t so easy to kill and despite the parade of colorful killers sent his way, continues to survive much to the irritation of Blut. Duncan has also formed a relationship with Camille (Hudgens) who lives nearby (i.e. within 100 miles). If Duncan can live long enough to collect his pension, there are going to be an awful lot of openings at Damocles.

For action junkies, there is a whole lot of that and just the way you like it, too – long on gore and short on sense. There are a lot of backhanded compliments to other lone assassin stories, with John Wick chief among them, although the world of Polar is a lot less developed than the world of John Wick. There is also the subversive humor of the Neveldine brothers as well.

I have definitely got a man-crush on Mads Mikkelsen. The man never seems to make a bad acting decision. He is one of those guys who is never flashy, but always makes every movie he is cast in just that much better. He can do the taciturn loner about as well as anybody including Keanu Reeves – although not as well as Clint Eastwood in his heyday (sorry, Mads).

Critics have basically torn this film a new one, but I don’t know. I think of it as a guilty pleasure. It’s definitely a film for boys, though – not that women won’t or can’t enjoy it, but it certainly panders to that demographic.

REASONS TO SEE: Has the feel of a cinematic comic book. Mikkelsen is awesome, as always.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets a little bit self-repetitive near the end.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of violence and gore, plenty of profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While there is an actress named Marsha Mason in the cast, it is not the same one that appeared with Richard Dreyfuss in The Goodbye Girl.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/3/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 19% positive reviews, Metacritic: 19/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Atomic Blonde
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Feral

Clover


A couple of idiots walk into a bar…oh, you’ve heard that one?

(2020) Crime Comedy (FreestyleMark Webber, Nicole Elizabeth Berger, Jon Abrahams, Erika Christensen, Chazz Palminteri, Ron Perlman, Julia Jones, Jake Webber, Jessica Szohr, Michael Godere, Tichina Arnold, Johnny Messner, Louis Lombardi, Val Lauren, Brian Goodman, Ari Barkan, Martin Abrahams, Peter Johnson, J.J. Alfieri, Giovanni Reda, Kathryn Schneider. Directed by Jon Abrahams

 

The trouble with borrowing money from mobsters is that sooner or later they’re going to want it back. If you don’t have it, it could lead to some pretty awkward conversations: “Where’s my money?” “AUUUUGH! OWWWWWW! OOOOOOO GOD!!!!” *whimper, whimper* *bleed, bleed*

That’s the situation that Irish brothers Jackie (M. Webber) and Mickey (Abrahams) Callaghan find themselves in, especially after Jackie foolishly gambles away their payment the night before it’s due. Then again, Jackie isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier.

They are given one chance to redeem themselves: said mob boss Tony (Palminteri) sends the two screw-ups along with his vicious son Joey (Godere) to collect from another deadbeat. Of course, you figure that the two numbskulls are being set up and they are, but after Joey kills the deadbeat, he himself is shot – by the deadbeat’s 13-year-old daughter Clover (Berger).

Realizing that nobody is going to believe they weren’t responsible, Mickey and Jackie go on the run, dragging Clover in tow. They try to find help from a rogue’s gallery of family and friends, including Jackie’s bitter ex-girlfriend Angie (Szohr), family friend and cop Stevie (Messner), local fix-it lady Pat (Arnold) and their demented uncle Terry (J. Webber) who has a thing about poisons. Can they keep themselves alive as well as protect an innocent little girl who may not necessarily be as innocent as she looks?

Abrahams and writer Michael Testone are trying to work out the Troy Duffy playbook, but neither is quite as clever nor as skilled with punchy dialogue as Duffy is, and the movie needed a whole lot of cleverness and snappy dialogue. It’s the kind of movie that I really could easily like, but it let me down in so many ways.

Before we get to that, there are some good points to keep in mind; the chemistry between Abrahams and Mark Webber is spot-on; they get on just like brothers who most of the time want to kill each other but deep down they would kill for each other if needed. Berger is a revelation; she reminded me strongly of Chloë Grace Moretz in Kick Ass and that’s a good thing. She’s both pretty and tough, yet shows vulnerability when she has to.

You also have Palminteri doing Palminteri which is always worth the price of the rental by itself. But you also have some pacing issues; at times the action comes thick and fast but at other times it drags. There needed to be more consistency there. Also, the score is about as annoying as can be. It sounded like someone paid ten bucks for a generic thriller score for student films. It is telling that nobody is credited with the score. This is where a decent budget could have netted them a few songs from the 70s to go with some of the obvious influences. I even thought I caught a whiff of blaxploitation in the mix.

There was some real potential here but it ends up being just a mediocre film, which is a shame. Elements of it work really nicely, particularly the three leads (and Palminteri) but a lack of good dialogue, a soundtrack that probably shouldn’t have been added on, and some issues with pacing doom the movie to being a must only for Palminteri completists.

REASONS TO SEE: A really nice twist at the end.
REASONS TO AVOID: Lacks bite and snappy pacing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and lots of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the debut feature film for Zonana.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Boondock Saints
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Streetlight Harmonies

Snowflake (Schneeflöckchen)


Even angels can’t get the blood stains out of their white robes.

(2017) Comedy Thriller (Artsploitation) Reza Brojerdi, Erkan Acar, Xenia Assenza, David Masterson, Gideon Burkhard, Alexander Schubert, David Gant, Adrian Topol, Antonio Wannek, Sven Martinek, Anjela Hobrig, Mathis Landwehr, Martin Goeres, Selam Tadese, Eskindir Tesfay, Alexander Wolf, Bruno Eyron, Stephen M. Gilbert, Judith Hoersch, Katja Wagner. Directed by Adolfo Kormerer

 

Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord according to the Bible. In the movies, vengeance belongs to any Tom, Dick, Harry or Jane willing to go far enough to achieve it. There is a reason, however, why God reserves vengeance for Himself.

This madly Meta German film begins with two Turkish men eating dolme kebabs in a Berlin shop. One likes the dolme, the other doesn’t. As they leave, we realize that a massacre has occurred in the shop. The two men – Tan (Acar) and Javid (Brojerdi) – calmly steal a car and discover in the back seat a screenplay. Curiously, the screenplay seems to predict everything the two say and do. Unnerved, they set out to find the man who wrote it.

The man turns out to be a somewhat rumpled dentist (Schubert) who has no idea what is going on. The two have other issues in that a mysterious woman named Eliana (Assenza) wants to see them dead for murdering her parents. She and her bodyguard Carson (Masterson) set out to meet Carson’s dad (Gant) who believes he is God and just might be. Talk about having Daddy issues! Anyway, the Almighty puts them in touch with a rogue’s gallery of assassins, including cannibals Bolek (Topol) and Dariusz (Wannek) who wear animal masks with Dariusz communicating only by squealing like the pig mask he wears. There’s also maniacal assassin Victor (Martinek) and a pair named Fumo (Tesfay) who is blind and Rashid (Tadese) who is not. The two targets have the benefit of beautiful guardian angel Snowflake (Hoersch) but also the wild card of superhero Hyper Electro Man (Landwehr) and would-be dictator Winter (Burkhard).

If that sounds like a handful, it is. This is a genre-bending, boundary-pushing mash-up that is as unique and totally original a movie you’ll see this year and maybe this decade. The movie boasts an extremely complicated but beautifully connected plot that on paper seems to be utterly senseless but once the final credits start rolling make absolute sense. This is the kind of movie that Quentin Tarantino would love.

The performances are solid throughout. Most of the actors are better known in Europe if they’re known anywhere, but despite the film’s microscopic budget they managed to cast some extremely talented actors – and got them to work for nothing.

The film is set in a post-economic collapse Berlin which is overrun by crime but people nonetheless go along with living their lives as normally as possible knowing that a trip to the grocery store – or to a dolme shop – could be fatal. That sounds a lot like the present day United States to me.

The humor here is biting and sometimes jarring and even whimsical and the action is well-staged. Most of the characters in the movie are pretty reprehensible in one way or another; seeking vengeance has a way of corrupting the soul and nearly everyone in the film is after revenge for one reason or another.

This was a most unexpected and welcome surprise; I hadn’t heard much about the film and even the distributor gave it merely a gentle push. I suppose this isn’t for everyone – some might find it a bit scattershot – but it certainly resonated with me. This is easily one of the best films of the year and one I would recommend to any film lover anywhere.

REASONS TO GO: A unique and original movie. The performances are solid all around. The story is engaging and the humor black as coal. It’s a little bit Tarantino, a little bit Monty Python.
REASONS TO STAY: The film’s a bit on the long side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity along with violence and gore, as well as some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The chainsaw that Javid carries around in the movie is actually an electric one; the power cord was taped to the side so that it gave the illusion that it was gas-powered.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/10/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Free Fire
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
The Favourite

Logan


The claws are out.

(2017) Superhero (20th Century Fox/Marvel) Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Boyd Holbrook, Dafne Keen, Stephen Merchant, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Richard E. Grant, Eriq LaSalle, Elise Neal, Quincy Fouse, Rey Gallegos, Krzysztof Soszynski, Stephen Dunleavy, Daniel Bernhardt, Ryan Sturz, Jason Genao, Hannah Westerfield, Bryant Tardy, Ashlyn Casalegno, Alison Fernandez. Directed by James Mangold

 

The end of an era can be a cause for celebration, a cause for sadness or both. Hugh Jackman announced prior to the release of the latest X-Men Universe solo film that this would be his last go-round as Wolverine, a run that has lasted 17 years and nine appearances in the part, the most for an actor playing a single character. It’s pretty hard to imagine anyone else playing the role.

It is the near-future and mutants have been decimated; they are either dead or in hiding. Logan (Jackman), once known as Wolverine, is hiding in plain sight in a border town in Mexico. He drives a limo in the evenings; by day he drinks…a lot. His mutant healing ability has begun to fail him and the adamantium in his bones has begun to poison him; he’s dying. So too is Professor X (Stewart), the powerful telepath who is beset by encroaching dementia which sometimes leads to terrible psychic blasts that literally stop time. Logan takes care of his old mentor along with Caliban (Merchant), an albino mutant tracker with a severe allergy to sunlight.

Logan is approached by Gabriela (Rodriguez), a nurse who wants Logan to drive Laura (Keen), a little girl to a place in Canada. Logan’s heroic days are behind him though and he turns her down but events conspire to bring Laura and Logan together and put them on the run, chased by the ruthless Pierce (Holbrook) who works for the even more ruthless Dr. Rice (Grant). Logan soon discovers that Laura is a lot like him…a lot. She has his healing ability – and his claws. The secret behind who Laura is will send Logan on a last quest with Professor X and lead to a bloody climax in the woods just south of the Canadian border.

It seems almost impossible but the Fox X-Men movies of late…well, two of the last three of them – the R-rated ones – have actually been as good if not better than the MCU movies. Deadpool took comic book movies to the R rating with a thumb to the nose and a wink to the audience, whereas Logan is a much more serious affair.

Jackman looks a lot older than he actually is here; it’s not the years, Logan might say, it’s the mileage. Jackman makes Logan a bitter, battered man who has lost hope. He is still loyal to Charles Xavier, but has essentially retreated from a world that hates him. Logan has always been a cynical character but here Jackman makes it less a defense mechanism than surrender.

There aren’t a lot of familiar faces in supporting roles other than Stewart who lost more than 20 pounds to give Xavier an air of fragility. Keen acquits herself well in the very physical role of Laura, impressive for a child actress – heck, any actress for that matter. Former St. Elsewhere star LaSalle makes a rare screen appearance in a very memorable role of a farmer who befriends Logan with devastating consequences.

The tone is bleak, exceptionally so. In many ways it reminded me of a Western – other reviewers have compared it with some justification with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven although the filmmakers themselves seem to be purposely inviting comparisons to the classic Western Shane, clips of which play during the course of the film. Given the mainly Southwestern setting and the overall tone, it is justified in being classified a superhero Western.

In many ways, the movie is well-timed. The mutants of the comic books have often been used as allegories for any oppressed minority and in this case, one could argue that they are stand-ins for immigrants particularly of the Muslim variety. It is also very much outside the box; generally we see heroes at the beginning of their careers when they make it to the multiplex; here we see a hero at the end of his. I won’t say this is the best superhero movie of all time, but it certainly stands out in a crowded field these days. It’s not for everybody – this is not a movie for children or the squeamish. It is serious cinematic art and demands a whole lot from the audience, not the least of which is their grey matter. Not something, sadly, that many modern film audiences seem willing to give.

REASONS TO GO: Despite the carnage, the movie actually gives the viewer a lot to think about.  It plays a little bit like a Western.
REASONS TO STAY: The violence may be too intense for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Let’s face it; the violence here is pretty extreme and there’s a lot of it. There’s also plenty of profanity as well as some brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie opened in 4,071 theaters in the United States, the most ever for an R-rated film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: X-Men: Days of Future Past
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Frantz

John Wick: Chapter 2


Even John Wick’s dog looks badass.

(2017) Action (Summit) Keanu Reeves, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ian McShane, Ruby Rose, Common, Claudia Gerini, Lance Reddick, Laurence Fishburne, Tobias Segal, John Leguizamo, Bridget Moynahan, Thomas Sadoski, Erik Frandsen, David Patrick Kelly, Perry Yung, Franco Nero, Peter Serafinowicz, Peter Stormare, Vadim Kroll, Kelly Rae LeGault. Directed by Chad Stahelski

 

One of the better action films to come down the pike in recent years was John Wick. In it, a retired assassin un-retires himself when the son of a Russian mobster steals his car and kills his dog. Bad career move. Wick kills everyone associated with the dumbass Russian scion and adopts a new dog.

When the movie starts, Wick is going to retrieve his car from yet another Russian mobster (Stormare) and while all he wants is the car, of course the Russian mobster and his men try to take the master assassin down. Yet another bad career move. Even as the boss retells the story of how Wick once killed three men with a pencil (which we also saw in the last movie), Wick mows down every mobster who comes at him, wrecking the car he came to retrieve in the first place but the point is clear.

Wick returns home and puts all of his arsenal under concrete, apparently intending to retire again. However, he has a visitor – an Italian mobster this time named Santino D’Antonio (Scamarcio). Wick owes Santino a favor and the guy intends to collect. It’s what’s called a marker and in the world that Wick lives in, these cannot be refused. Wick promptly refuses and Santino promptly blows up his house.

Deciding that discretion is the better part of valor, Wick decides to fulfill the marker anyway (now minus a house) and takes on the job of killing Santino’s sister Gianna (Gerini) who Santino’s dad made head of the mob after he retired – or in other words, passed on. This didn’t sit well with Santino so he figured that if his sister was out of the way, he could take his rightful place as head of the family.

That’s why Wick heads to Rome, visits a tailor who has a way with Kevlar as well as a sommelier who has a nose for fine German firearms and heads over to a rave cum orgy celebrating sister’s ascension to the head of family status at a Roman ruin – those decadent Italians – and takes her out. This doesn’t sit well with her bodyguard (Common) who now unemployed decides to make a point of expressing his displeasure to Wick. Mayhem ensues.

The plot is a little more labyrinthine than before and we get more background on the world of assassins. The Continental Hotel, neutral ground in the first movie, is apparently a chain and the managers (Ian McShane in New York, Franco Nero in Rome) enforce that neutrality vigorously. We get a sense of the complex support system for the killers and the fairly cut and dried rules governing their behavior. This is all to the good.

The production design is also highly stylized from the Hall of Mirrors-like museum display in Rome, the gaudily lit rave, some of the most stylishly lit catacombs I’ve ever seen, the genteel and urbane Hotels and of course Wick’s Fortress of Solitude before Santino blows it to smithereens.

Where the movie fails, curiously enough, is the action – the strength of the first film. Stahelski fails to maintain the interest of the viewer for the length of the movie which he was able to do in the first. Here, the sequences have the effect of numbing the viewer until you feel quite blasé about the whole thing. I didn’t think I could get jaded in an all-out action film like this, but I did.

I will admit my complaints about the film have not been echoed by other reviewers or by friends who have seen the sequel and proclaimed it better than the original. I disagree, respectfully but nonetheless firmly. While it gives us more plot and more insight into the world the first film created and inhabits it with interesting characters who are portrayed by some fine actors like Fishburne, McShane, Nero and Common, at the end of the day I wanted to be wowed by the action and I just wasn’t. This is reportedly intended to be the middle segment in a planned John Wick trilogy. I hope that the third movie will combine the best points of both movies and create an action movie for the ages. When you’re a movie critic, hope should spring eternal.

REASONS TO GO: The mythology started in the first film is fleshed out more in the second.
REASONS TO STAY: The action scenes become mind-numbing after awhile.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a stupid amount of violence, a fair amount of profanity and a scene with graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stahelski was Reeves’ stunt double in The Matrix trilogy.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kill Bill: Vol. 1
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The Great Wall

Assassin’s Creed


Michael Fassbender realizes that taking this role might have been a mistake.

Michael Fassbender realizes that taking this role might have been a mistake.

(2016) Adventure (20th Century Fox) Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Michael K. Williams, Denis Ménochet, Ariane Labed, Khalid Abdalla, Essie Davis, Matias Varela, Callum Turner, Carlos Bardem, Javier Gutiérrez, Hovik Keuchkerian, Crystal Clarke, Michelle H. Lin. Directed by Justin Kurzel

 

Is free will all it’s cracked up to be? What is free will, after all, if the decisions you make are uninformed? Is it better to have someone make our decisions for us for the greater good? Or is it better that we have our own free will even if our decisions tend to be rendered by self-interest and disregard for others?

Convicted murderer Callum Lynch (Fassbender) is about to be executed. Never mind that he witnessed his father (Brian Gleeson) murder his mother (Davis) in cold blood without explanation, he turned to crime on his own and for his crimes he will pay. Except that he wakes up – not in heaven, but in a strange corporate facility where Dr. Sofia Rikkim (Cotillard) informs him that he’s still alive and about to take part in a procedure that will tap his genetic memories. Memories of ancestors, or in this case of a specific ancestor – Aguilar (Fassbender) who was an assassin – excuse me, Assassin – who alone knows the location of an artifact called the Apple of Eden.

This is all a part of an ages-old feud between two warring factions, the Templars and the Assassins, each fighting for their philosophy of free will versus control. Think of the Assassins as Chaotic Good while the Templars are the Lawful Evil. In any case, the Apple of Eden contains the genetic DNA of free will; he who controls it can modify human behavior – eliminate violence altogether, says Dr. Rikkim. Oh boy!

The means of doing that is through a machine called the Animus in which Callum can inhabit the body of Aguilar, see what he sees and utilize his skills which, as it happens, he retains when he comes back into his own body. There’s also a robotic arm on the Animus which allows Callum/Aguilar to do all sorts of nifty parkour moves.

The problem is as it always seems to be is that not everything is what it appears to be. Dr. Rikkim seems to have the best intentions, but what of her industrialist father (Irons) and the haughty patrician lady Ellen Kaye (Rampling)? And when it turns out that Callum’s hated father (Brendan Gleeson) is in the facility, a reckoning is sure to follow.

Like many movies based on videogame franchises, the basic appeal is going to be to the gamers who are familiar with the game and know the mythology behind it. Those of us who aren’t familiar with the game are going to have a hard time navigating this movie which is convoluted and over-complicated. The latter two traits actually work in favor for a videogame; gamers want a complex game to navigate because that maintains their interest.

The visuals are compelling for the most part although there’s a tendency for the scenes set in the Inquisition to be overlighted and a bit washed out. Scenes that are set outdoors don’t look it and I have to think that’s because the CGI is insufficient to the task. Nothing takes you out of a movie faster than scenes that don’t look real. Also, I understand that the Eagle that appears several times in the movie is a game thing, it seemed overused to me and also looked badly animated.

The stunts however were mind-blowing, some of the best of the year. While I thought that the best one (involving a more than 100 foot free fall, a stunt not attempted for a Hollywood film for more than 30 years) should not have appeared in the trailer when it does show up in the film it’s no less breathtaking.

One doesn’t go to this kind of film for the acting, but given the pedigree of the cast including some of the finest actors in the world (i.e. Fassbender, Cotillard, Irons and Gleeson senior) the performances show that they were at least attempting to do their best. Stiff upper lips must have been needed given some of the things they had to do and say here, but one can’t fault the cast here for the film’s shortcomings.

It is ironic that the theme here champions free will and yet the medium is a movie, which is essentially a passive enterprise in which the audience simply accepts the vision and viewpoint of the filmmaker as opposed to the videogame in which the player makes choices. The audience here makes none other than whether or not to walk out halfway through. What we have here is another failed attempt by Hollywood to make a hugely popular videogame into a movie franchise; perhaps they should stop trying.

I’m not against videogames or videogame adaptations – far from it. I’m just against bad adaptations. I would love to see a film adaptation that actually does justice to a game and I know it can be done. It just hasn’t really been up to now for any franchise not called Resident Evil. Hopefully at some point we will see one – just not today.

REASONS TO GO: The stunts are incredible. The cast at least take the material seriously.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is overly complex and convoluted. All of the outdoor scenes look like they were filmed indoors in a simulation of late afternoon.
FAMILY VALUES: As you might expect with a videogame adaptation there is a ton of violence, some adult thematic elements and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was given a completely unique plot rather than bringing one of the videogames to the screen (there are nine of them in the Assassin’s Creed franchise) and Ubisoft has stated that all of their big screen films will have separate storylines from their games.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 36/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tomb Raider
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Fences

The Nice Guys


An outtake from The Shining?

An outtake from The Shining?

(2016) Action Comedy (Warner Brothers) Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Kim Basinger, Margaret Qualley, Yaya DaCosta, Keith David, Beau Knapp, Lois Smith, Murielle Telio, Gil Gerard, Daisy Tahan, Jack Kilmer, Lance Valentine Butler, Ty Simpkins, Cayla Brady, Tammi Arender, Rebecca Dalton Rusk, Terence Rosemore, John L. Morris, Michelle Rivera, Nathaniel “Nate” Scott. Directed by Shane Black

 

1977 in Los Angeles was an interesting place. It was the golden age of porn; bell bottoms and flower shirts were the fashion, and guys with too-long locks and elaborate facial hair were on the prowl for chicks with teased hair. Smog choked everything and in the post-Watergate atmosphere, it felt a lot like innocence had been irrevocably lost. This is where and when I grew up.

Shane Black gets it note-perfect, and while I admit I had very little to do with the porn industry as a teenager (other than as a prospective consumer) this feels like the L.A. I grew up in. This is the kind of town where a sports car might crash from a hilltop road into your background, disgorging a beautiful naked porn star (Telio) whose final words are “How do you like my car?”

This is also the kind of place inhabited by Jackson Healy (Crowe), a Bronx-bred tough guy who is the kind of guy you call when you want someone hurt, but not killed. He’s also a bit of a knight in not-so-shining and dented all to hell armor, hired by a young woman named Amanda (Qualley) to discourage a guy who’s been stalking her.

That guy happens to be Holland March (Gosling) whom Healy appropriately sends to the hospital with a spiral fracture of his arm. But as it turns out, he’s been hired to find Amanda – he’s a private detective, albeit one who drinks far too much and isn’t nearly as bright as he thinks he is. After their encounter, Healy is visited by a pair of mobsters (Knapp, David) who are trying to intimidate him about the whereabouts of Amanda. March gets away from the two of them, leaving one of them with permanent blue dye all over his face.

Realizing that he’s stepped into something that doesn’t smell so good, he enlists the guy he sent to the hospital – March – to find out what’s going on and locate Amanda, who’s disappeared off the face of the Earth. At first none too pleased to be teamed up with him, March begins to grudgingly respect his new partner. The two are helped by March’s precocious daughter Holly (Rice) who is a better detective than either of them.

It turns out the case is related to the porn industry, the California Department of Justice whose head honcho (Basinger) turns out to be Amanda’s mother. On the trail is the chief bad guy John Boy (Bomer) who is thus named because he has a similar mole as Richard Thomas of The Waltons. And with avant garde pornographers, vicious hit men, and Vegas mobsters to contend with, these two ne’er-do-wells will have their work cut out for them if they plan to live to see 1978.

Black has always been a terrific writer, going back to his Lethal Weapon days and to an extent, he’s mocking the genre he helped create (the buddy cop movie) with this film, which would come out ten years after this film was set. As I mentioned earlier, he gets the period stuff right on with the fashions, the smog, the soundtrack and even the vibe. This is most definitely the City of Angels I remember.

He also casts his film nicely. Both Gosling and Crowe take to their parts like they were born to them, and the chemistry between the two is what carries the movie and holds it together. Crowe, who carries himself as a big guy, does the tough-with-a-heart-of-gold as well as anybody and while Gosling is often the comic relief, he never stoops to making his character a laughing stock, although March easily could be considering all the poor choices he makes.

Rice should also be given some credit. The movies are filled with precocious kids who are smarter than the adults in the movie, and often these types of characters are annoying as the fluctuating price of gas. However, Rice makes the character credible enough and vulnerable enough to avoid that pitfall, although again I do wish the adults here didn’t have to be quite so dumb.

The action sequences are decently staged as are the comedy bits, although I think most of the best comedy moments can be found in the trailer which is a bummer. At times, it feels like it is one irritable police captain away from a TV cop show from that era – Starsky and Hutch much?  There is also a little bit of a reach in the plot department in terms of the conspiracy going on in high places, although the movie is well-written overall in terms of plot construction. However, it feels a little bit like a noir film with a funk soundtrack, if you get my drift. Some of it just doesn’t work.

Overall though this is far more entertaining than a lot of stuff out there. It’s smart, it has some decent performances and it captures a place and time better than most. Some might find the immersion in the porn culture a bit distasteful but Black doesn’t stick it in your face overly much. Well, maybe not to me. While I have friends who dug this a lot more than I did, I can say they’re not wrong in giving this film the kind of love they’ve given it and as far as I’m concerned, Shane Black is the kind of director who always seems to make movies that are worthwhile viewing. Boom shaka laka laka, baby.

REASONS TO GO: Smart dialogue and plot construction. Crowe and Gosling have genuine chemistry.
REASONS TO STAY: Originally started life as a television pilot and has that kind of TV quality to it. A little far-fetched in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence abounds as well as sexuality and nudity with plenty of foul language and a smattering of drug use – all 70s-centric things.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the elevator scene, the same background Muzak plays as in the similarly-set scene in The Blues Brothers.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inherent Vice
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Warcraft

The Huntsman: Winter’s War


Sisters are doin' it for themselves.

Sisters are doin’ it for themselves.

(2016) Fantasy (Universal) Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron, Emily Blunt, Jessica Chastain, Nick Frost, Rob Brydon, Sheridan Smith, Alexandra Roach, Sope Dirisu, Sam Hazeldine, Sam Claflin, Sophie Cookson, Conrad Khan, Niamh Walter, Nana Agyeman-Bediako, Amelia Crouch, Fred Tatasciore, Lynne Wilmot, Colin Morgan, Liam Neeson (voice), Kara Lily Hayworth. Directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan

 

When making a successful cinematic fairy tale, remember the cardinal rule – always leave room for a sequel. The makers of Snow White and the Huntsman didn’t really go that route, although there was certainly a possibility for a sequel. What they did was an oddball mix of prequel and sequel – a pre-sequel, if you will.

Ravenna (Theron), the beautiful but evil queen from the first movie, has a sister named Freya (Blunt) who is married and happy. When a tragedy turns Freya’s life upside down, Freya finds that she has magical powers as well – an ability to control the cold. She turns her kingdom into ice, and forbids love of any sort to exist. She ravages the towns of her kingdom, murdering the parents and stealing kids to be groomed into medieval ninja assassins, whom she calls Huntsmen.

Eric (Hemsworth) and Sara (Chastain) are the best of these; no others can stand against them. They become leaders of an organization that strikes fear throughout the land but then they break the most sacred law of the kingdom by falling in love and they end up paying a terrible price for it. One, I’m sure, you can see coming.

Fast forward seven years and the events of Snow White and the Huntsman are no longer taking place in the future but in the past – raise your hands if you find that confusing. The audience certainly did. In any case, Ravenna is dead but Freya has figured a way to bring her back to life – by acquiring the Magic Mirror of the first film. Eric is not about to let that happen. Aided by a quartet of comic relief dwarves, he heads out to stop Freya at all costs – but he doesn’t count on the one card Freya has to play that he could never have possibly expected.

Like a lot of the fairy tale films produced by Joe Roth, this movie is effects-laden and often sacrifices story for imagery. That’s OK, when the images are as scintillating as they are here; this is a beautiful film to watch. The problem here is that the movie feels like the pacing has gone by the wayside. It’s slow and turgid, and while the actors do credible work, they are given characters who lack much in the way of personality.

Hemsworth is one of only four actors who return from the first film, and as there he shows here that he has all he needs to be a strong leading man. He has that “one of the boys” feel that serves him well as a certain Marvel superhero, but he also commands the screen with confidence as befits a big star. Theron, in addition to being absolutely knock-down drag-out gorgeous, is an actress of considerable range and ability; she does the villain role as well as anybody, including Christoph Waltz.

Emily Blunt is one of those actresses whose name isn’t well known, but who delivers a strong performance every time out. She’s been impressive in such films as Sicario and Edge of Tomorrow and she gives the most emotional performance of any here. Freya is a tortured soul and we get to see glimpses of it; her experiences have hardened her heart (or frozen it) but not completely. From time to time we see flashes of the pain she bears.

Chastain has become one of those actresses who appears in a lot of movies, nearly all of them good. This one is a bit of an exception (more on that later) but she still carries herself off as a warrior struggling with her emotions and her feelings of betrayal. Now while these sound like characters who should have loads of personality, they aren’t allowed to really express them through action or even dialogue. The body language and eyes of the actors gets across most of the characters’ inner feelings. You can tell the actors are trying hard and quite frankly they could have been excused if they’d just phoned it in once they’d cashed the paycheck.

But this movie feels ponderous and not in the sense that it ponders – more like a bloated elephant stomping its way through the underbrush. There’s little finesse here and a little bit too much reliance on the effects to give the movie a sense of wonder. The sequences in the fairy forest of the first film were truly magical; nothing here equals that. In fact, given the somewhat jarring move from prequel to sequel (which in itself was a promising idea) it feels like the filmmakers at times were distracted by things not even going on in the movie.

This is reasonably entertaining with some fine performances, but as other critics have deftly pointed out, there are a lot of good elements here that don’t add up to a good film. Winter’s War is mediocre at best and given that there are so many really good movies out there just waiting for you to check out, it makes no sense to throw your money away when you could be seeing something that really does have plenty of movie magic to spare.

REASONS TO GO: Some nifty effects. Theron makes a delicious villain.
REASONS TO STAY: It feels a bit too bloated. Overall, lacks focus.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence of the swords and sorcery variety as well as a little bit of sensuality..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Despite the popularity of the first film, Kristen Stewart who played Snow White was not asked to reprise her role, the producers electing to go the prequel route. Some say that her notorious affair with director Rupert Sanders was the reason both were made absent from this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/31/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews. Metacritic: 35/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Maleficent
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Jungle Book

Spectre


No vehicle is safe around James Bond.

No vehicle is safe around James Bond.

(2015) Spy Action (MGM/Columbia) Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Monica Bellucci, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Rory Kinnear, Jesper Christensen, Alessandro Cremona, Stephanie Sigman, Tenoch Huerta, Adriana Paz, Domenico Fortunato, Brigitte Millar, Lara Parmiani. Directed by Sam Mendes

The past has a way of surfacing when we least expect it. Sometimes, it’s just a pleasant memory we’d forgotten. Other times, our sins come back to haunt us in ways we could never possibly expect.

With the carnage of Skyfall behind him (there are spoilers here if you haven’t seen that movie so quick, go see it before reading on), James Bond (Craig) finds himself in Mexico City several months later during the Dia de los muertos celebration. He is after a terrorist who has plans to set off bombs somewhere in the city, but Bond has other plans. Before sending most of the men in the room making plans to end the lives of innocents to kingdom come, he overhears plans to meet with someone called the Pale King. As is the wont around James Bond, buildings are blown up, a chase takes place through the crowded streets of Mexico City and a fight ensues on a helicopter which narrowly avoids crashing into the crowd.

The trouble is, Bond wasn’t authorized to do any of this or even be in Mexico. The new M (Fiennes) is already having issues with C (Scott), the head of MI-5 who has recently merged with MI-6 and is now in charge, and who is threatening on dismantling the double 0 program and replacing it with the Nine Eyes directive – the combined surveillance material from the nine largest agencies in the world, including the intelligence communities of the United States, Russia, China and other nations. Only South Africa remains a holdout.

Given the ruthlessness of C, it isn’t any surprise when a terrorist attack in South Africa changes their vote. These events, Bond deduces, are related to his own chase of the Pale King. After seducing the widow (Bellucci) of the assassin, Bond tracks down an old nemesis whose daughter Madeleine Swann (Seydoux) holds the key to a sinister criminal organization known as SPECTRE – and it’s mysterious leader (Waltz) who has a connection with Bond’s past – in more than one sense.

This has every element that makes Bond films so entertaining; a debonair and cool as a cucumber spy, gorgeous women, mind-blowing gadgets, absolutely amazing action and stunt sequences and exotic locations. Well, it’s missing one element – a great theme song, but Sam Smith delivered an absolutely atrocious song that may go down as one of the worst of any Bond film ever – and there have been some absolute turkeys, although the vast majority of Bond themes have been fabulous.

Craig in his fourth film inhabits the role, and while he is contracted for a fifth film (which the ending sets up very nicely), he has said in interviews that he wouldn’t mind finishing out his run here. I think he may want to rethink that; this isn’t his best performance as Bond (Skyfall is) and he might want to go out on a higher note than this.

Part of the problem is similar to what plagued Quantum of Solace – it simply doesn’t measure up to the high bar set by the film before it. While this movie is much better than Quantum, it’s also no Skyfall and that isn’t a knock at all; Skyfall is in my opinion second only to Goldfinger in terms of great Bond movies. Sacrilege to some, I grant you, but that’s how I see it.

While Craig is ice cold through most of this, Waltz as the villain whose name I won’t reveal here is simply put the best villain of the Craig era and maybe the best other than Auric Goldfinger in the whole franchise. Waltz as…he who shall not be named….is as urbane as Bond, has a deadly edge to him and is certifiably insane, but not in a “Look at me I’m Napoleon” manner but in a quiet, serious “I’m going to do something spectacularly evil” way. You have no doubt that Waltz’ character is capable of conjuring up absolutely horrific mayhem and is quite willing to see it through.

We get to explore Bond’s relationships with his team, mainly Whishaw as Q, Harris as Moneypenny and Fiennes as M. There is a cameo by Judi Dench as the previous M whose posthumous message sends Bond careening off to Mexico, and we get a sense of Bond’s loyalty. He doesn’t trust anyone really, but one senses he trusted M – and not the new one, necessarily.

The stunts here are as good as ever – the Mexico City sequence is worth the price of admission alone – and while the gadgets aren’t as gee-whiz as in past years, the best line of the movie comes when Q hands Bond a watch and Bond asks “And what does this do?” Q responds with a droll “It tells the time.”

The movie feels like it’s cramming a little bit too much plot in; I don’t know that we needed to go all over the globe to finally end up in futuristic volcanic lair that we don’t really get to see much of but is apparently immense. They had to conjure up the largest explosion in movie history in order to…well, let’s just say that it doesn’t end He Who Shall Not Be Named’s nefarious plans.

Don’t get me wrong – this is thoroughly entertaining and certainly will keep Bond fans more than happy, although the critical reaction has been disappointing. I do hope Craig does do one more film and finishes his time in the franchise on a better note than this. It’s a good movie, but not a great one. I think Craig has one more great Bond film in him.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific action sequences. Waltz is the best villain of the Craig era. Continues the return to the iconic 60s Bond films.
REASONS TO STAY: A little on the busy side. Sam Smith’s song is terrible.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of action violence, some disturbing images, sexual innuendo and some mildly foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At age 50 during filming, Bellucci is the oldest Bond girl to appear in the franchise by twelve years (Honor Blackman was 38 when she filmed Goldfinger).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/15/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: You Only Live Twice
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Veteran

Hitman: Agent 47


Shoot first and and don't bother to ask questions later.

Shoot first and and don’t bother to ask questions later.

(2015) Spy Action (20th Century Fox) Rupert Friend, Hannah Ware, Zachary Quinto, Ciaran Hinds, Thomas Kretschmann, Jurgen Prochnow, Rolf Kanies, Sebastian Hulk, Jerry Hoffman, Dan Bakkedahl, Emilio Rivera, Helena Pieske, Johannes Suhm, Angelababy, Tom Jester, Charlene Beck, Jesse Hergt, Daniel Stockhorst, Mona Pirzad. Directed by Aleksander Bach

Videogames are a multi-billion dollar business. There are tens – perhaps hundreds – of millions of gamers in the United States and around the world. Why, then, are movies based on videogames so bad and why have none been embraced by the gaming community? One theory is that gaming is an interactive medium whereas watching movies is a passive undertaking. Gamers prefer to influence their games, make decisions, determine the shape of the story. They can’t do that in a movie.

Which is horse hockey. Sure, gamers prefer an interactive medium, but that pre-supposes that gaming is the only medium they subscribe to. In fact evidence points to gamers also being readers as well as moviegoers. The reason that gamers can’t get behind movies based on games is because the studios, notorious for not understanding games or gamers, put what can only be described as a cursory (no pun intended) effort behind the film adaptations and the results are movies that aren’t just bad videogame adaptations but just bad period.

Take Hitman: Agent 47 for example. Games are by their nature cinematic and one gets the sense that Bach actually understands this; the movie is beautifully rendered, mainly lensed in Singapore (which is a city of fantastic architecture) and Berlin. The look of the movie is sleek and futuristic. There are some shots of a bikini-wearing woman slowly entering an infinity pool at the top of an exclusive Singapore hotel at dusk; cobalt blues, neon reds and greens blend to give the scene a surreal urban glow. However, this shot is also a microcosm for what’s wrong with the movie; the shot only exists for us to see Hannah Ware in a bikini. She has no reason to be swimming at that moment and it’s not germane to the plot.

The plot consists of Agent 47 (Friend), a genetically engineered assassin who is smarter, faster and stronger than the average human. He is on the hunt for Katia (Ware), a young woman who has shall we say hidden talents. What he’s really after is her father Dr. Litvenko (Hinds), who originated the Agent program. Many have tried to duplicate his work without success; one multinational corporation – known only by the obviously non-sinister nomenclature of The Syndicate, really wants an Agent. An army of them, in fact and their director, the Belgian Le Clerq (Kretschmann, a German) has sent a genetically modified assassin, John Smith (Quinto) to fetch the girl and find out what she knows. However 47, with a barcode tattooed on the back of his bald head, has his own agenda.

The story is weak and cliche and to be honest, I think that the studios really believe that the gaming community has to be pandered to rather than giving them stories that have depth and innovation. It hasn’t occurred to them that gamers are used to vast universes with complex back stories and games that not only challenge the gamer to think but require him/her to. Videogames are not all shoot-em-ups or football simulations.

This is a beautiful looking film, with lovely cityscapes and urban environments. The syndicate’s headquarters is all glass and fiberglass, with computer terminals the size of desks and cubicles that look like they were designed by the same person who does the W Hotel chain.  The film is well-lit for a change, which means that the movie isn’t murky throughout like a lot of action movies seem to be these days.

There are also some nifty action sequences with Syndicate goons going after 47 and Katia, or vice versa. Generally the movie is at it’s best when the action takes center stage. Friend is fairly limber which is necessary when making some of the moves 47 does, pirouetting and tumbling about like a demented gymnast in a suit. The choreography, while not up to some of the great Hong Kong action films, is nonetheless superior to most Hollywood action movies.

Friend goes through the movie essentially trying to play a Vulcan, which he could have gotten pointers from Quinto on. He mostly speaks in a monotone which really isn’t the way to go and from time to time I get the feel that the actor is frustrated with his role. Quinto is a good deal of fun when he’s onscreen, the reliable Hinds does what he can in a standard aging mad scientist role and Ware is pretty much wasted in a role that could have been a strong feminine heroine but isn’t.

This is like a supermodel with a lobotomy; great to look at but really nothing inside which is a shame; there’s a lot of potential in the franchise but the producers and the studio bungled it in a depressing way. The studios will probably go on thinking that the gamer market should be dumbed down to and will pour money into all the wrong things when it comes to videogame adaptations and audiences and critics alike will continue to go on thinking that the studios don’t have a clue what to do with these franchises, which is a frustrating situation for those who’d love to see some really good movies come out of these great video game franchises. Why is it that Hollywood can make great movies out of comic books but not of video games? I think that someone like Blizzard or Square Enix will have to do what Marvel did – create their own film division – before we see that happen.

REASONS TO GO: Visually impressive. Quinto is fun to watch.
REASONS TO STAY: Inane plot. Wasted potential.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and a smattering of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Paul Walker was set to play the title role until his untimely death.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/9/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 7% positive reviews. Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Kingsman: The Secret Service
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Meru