Mute


Here’s a scene that could have used Harrison Ford.

(2018) Science Fiction (Netflix) Alexander Skarsgård, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux, Seyneb Saleh, Robert Sheehan, Daniel Fathers, Robert Kazinsky, Jannis Niewöhner, Dominic Monaghan, Melissa Holroyd, Levi Eisenblätter, Caroline Peters, Nikki Lamborn, Noel Clarke, Gilbert Owuor, Andrzej Blumenfeld, Michael Behrens, Mike Davies, Sam Rockwell, Anja Karmanski. Directed by Duncan Jones

 

Duncan Jones is one of the most inventive and admired genre directors out there. When Netflix picked up this film to display, it was considered a coup. A much-admired director at the top of his game in a fairly large-budget production, Netflix was undoubtedly hoping for a franchise.

That’s not necessarily what they got. They got a sci-fi noir story set in a 2050 Berlin very much based on the look of Blade Runner. Alexander Skarsgård plays Leo, an Amish bartender (!) at a seedy dive in the underground of Berlin who has been mute since a childhood boating accident. His girlfriend Naadirah (Saleh) is a cocktail waitress (and as he later discovers, a part-time prostitute) who disappears after a couple of lowlifes make some untoward advances, causing the angry Amish (!) to beat the holy crap out of them.

No longer burdened with having to be a bartender after getting fired (even seedy dive owners get grumpy about employees beating up customers) Leo turns into gritty Amish detective (!) and searches the dodgy side of town in search of his lover who turns out to have a few secrets of her own, secrets that are connected to a couple of AWOL American military surgeons named Cactus Bill (Rudd) and Duck (Theroux) and perhaps Luba (Sheehan), a bisexual waiter and fellow prostitute who has a big time crush on Naadirah and big time contempt for Leo.

The visuals are nothing less than stunning, although you’ll get a sense that you’ve seen it all before; the nod to the Ridley Scott classic at times crosses the line from homage to rip-off. Skarsgård at least delivers a soulful performance as Leo, mainly having to emote using facial expressions and body language. However the conceit of making him Amish fails spectacularly – should any Amish have a Netflix subscription they no doubt will be scratching their beards and wondering to their mates “Does thee believe what thou are seeing?” The banter between Rudd and Theroux is fun, but it gets a bit creepy (Cactus Bill has a volcanic temper and Duck is a pederast) particularly towards the end of the film.

Critics absolutely hated this thing as you can see by their scores below, but they’re being a little harsh, maybe because Jones set his own bar so high. Yeah, the plot is muddled but if you stick with it for the two hours plus that the movie runs it all does come together. The film is genuinely inventive and I think most critics will agree that it’s like nothing you’ve seen before which I admit isn’t always a good thing. However, I was reasonably entertained and parts of the film have remained with me although parts have not – one of the most important plot points is explained at the end but I can’t for the life of me remember what that explanation is. Don’t let the Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores dissuade you for deciding for yourself; I enjoyed it enough to recommend it although do take that with a note of caution; I’m pretty much alone in the critical community in that regard.

REASONS TO GO: The visuals are breathtaking. Skarsgård delivers a soulful performance.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is more than a little bit muddled. Sheehan gives far too wooden a performance as Luba.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and sexuality herein.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: David Hasselhoff appears on the currency.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/20/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews. Metacritic: 35/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blade Runner 2049
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Deadpool 2

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Star Trek Into Darkness


Alice Eve and Chris Pine try to out-blonde each other.

Alice Eve and Chris Pine try to out-blonde each other.

(2013) Science Fiction (Paramount) Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Benedict Cumberbatch, Karl Urban, John Cho, Bruce Greenwood, Alice Eve, Peter Weller, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin, Noel Clarke, Nazneen Contractor, Amanda Foreman, Jay Scully, Jonathan H. Dixon, Aisha Hinds, Joseph Gatt, Deep Roy, Anjini Taneja Azhar. Directed by J.J. Abrams

The trouble with taking on an icon is that the bar is impossibly high. You’re not going to please everybody, particularly the diehard old guard fans of the franchise. The fever pitch of shrieking outrage usually begins with the second film in the reboot. J.J. Abrams knows that better than most; he has had his fingers in the hands of three beloved franchises – Mission: Impossible, Star Wars and Star Trek.

This is his second film in the reboot of the Trek franchise. The first got some grudging respect from the notoriously difficult-to-please Trek fandom who might very well turn their noses up if Gene Roddenberry were resurrected and turned up to direct a new Trek movie.

The new film starts out with a terrorist attack in London, ramps up with a conspiracy to militarize Starfleet’s science and exploration mission (think of NASA with missiles and bombs) and finishes up with the appearance of a familiar foe.

Normally I’m one to describe the plot in great detail, but I think I’m going to abstain this time – for one thing, I found that knowing little about what was to occur in the movie made it far more delightful. Knowledgeable Trekkers and those fairly familiar with the canon of the original series will find lots of references here, from Harry Mudd to Transwarp drive to tribbles. There is also a great deal of referencing one of the original series most popular episodes and most beloved films but not exactly as you might remember it.

Abrams has re-energized the franchise without a doubt. Part of the success of the reboot has to do with the casting – each of the choices are spot on. Pine in particular takes the essence of Captain Kirk created by William Shatner and loses some of the mannerisms that made the character a bit of a parody in later years. Pine understands the basics of the legendary Captain – the recklessness, the ego, the brilliant strategic mind and the penchant for womanizing, but takes out the quirks – the stunted speech patterns, the over-reaction reactions and the writers have kindly aided his cause by giving Kirk fewer pronouncements and more self-analysis.

Quinto also makes a terrific Spock, although I noticed in this movie that his jaw seemed a bit more set and he looked a little less like the original Spock in a lot of ways, but he does capture the constant war between the emotional human side and the cold, logical Vulcan in him. The trauma of Vulcan’s fate in the last film weighs heavily on him, although he doesn’t show it.

The relationship between Spock and Uhura is an interesting one, given that this is a recent invention. Zoe Saldana gives the character a little more action-orientation than Nichelle Nichols did in her day; I like also that the writers give her a lot more to do than being a glorified answering machine. She is much more a member of the team than she was in the original series, where much of the planning, decision making and risk taking was done by the male members of the crew. You’ve come a long way, baby.

Cho is a worthy successor to George Takei as Sulu. One of the great regrets I have when it comes to Star Trek is that we never really got to see too much of Sulu as Captain – in the couple of instances when we did see it Takei was amazing. Cho gets an opportunity to take command as Sulu and makes the most of it; I’m kind of hoping we see Cho in a spin-off someday.

Pegg is one of the world’s outstanding comic actors and while Scotty becomes more of a comic figure than he was in the original series (although depicted as a heavy drinker he had his share of drunk moments that James Doohan played beautifully) the main thrust of his character is his brilliance as an engineer and we get that from Pegg as well, although he is a bit more willful than the original Scotty and in one of the new film’s most underrated scenes stands right up to Kirk, something I don’t recall seeing the character ever do before but was a welcome moment here.

There are also “guest” characters; Greenwood as Pike is a bit of a mentor and a lot more of a father figure to Kirk. Alice Eve is gorgeous and plays her pivotal character as a lot more than you might guess from the surface – and the writers leave room for future glimpses of her character. Peter Weller, who had a couple of appearances on the Enterprise TV series, plays an admiral here whose character might remind long-time fans of an admiral who had a small but pivotal role in one of the last movies featuring the original crew.

That leads us to Benedict Cumberbatch whose character is…well, not who he appears to be. Fans of the original series will doubtlessly guess early on who he actually is but for now let us say that he is a brilliant adversary worthy of Kirk and Spock and whose appearance is done in what I believe is the proper way – coming into the series sideways, making the surprise all the more pleasant (although again savvy Trekkers will either know from Internet chatter who he is or guess based on the clues the filmmakers give us early on). Cumberbatch is an up-and-coming actor who looks to have a brilliant career ahead of him, and based on this film is already getting some scrutiny for some plum roles in franchise films. Before you know it this man is going to be one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Bet on it.

The stakes are higher here and the effects are as crazy good as they were in the last Star Trek film. I chose not to see it in 3D – who wants to see those annoying lens flares in 3D? – and I think that’s a wise choice. Some of the scenes are set in pretty dark places and the 3D glasses will only make it murkier. Besides, I didn’t get the sense that 3D would have added anything to the experience.

I liked the movie just a smidge less than the first one; what pleased me most is that the filmmakers are developing the characters in just the right way to set up more thoughtful episodes in the future. While there was some underlying commentary about the militarization of space, the usefulness of drones and of terrorism in general, this is still a little more action-oriented than fans of the original series may like but that does make the movie more palatable to non-fans. Oh, and you get to see Klingons too.

In my review of the first film I wondered if Abrams could repeat his successful reboot in the second film. The answer is a resounding yes. This is great entertainment not only for Trekkers but for general audiences as well, managing to thread the line nicely. Certainly this bodes well for the future of the franchise and with the 50th anniversary of Trek’s debut in 1966 only a few short years away, one can only be hopeful that there are a lot more places for the crew of the Enterprise to boldly go.

REASONS TO GO: Pine turning out to be an excellent Kirk and the rest of the supporting cast works well also. Nice effects, battle sequences and stunts.

REASONS TO STAY: The story is a little bit all over the place.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some pretty intense battle sequences in space as well as some pretty nifty fisticuffs.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Christopher Doohan, the son of the original Scotty (the late James Doohan), makes a cameo appearance as a transporter technician working alongside the current Scotty in the transporter room.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/23/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100; pretty impressive reviews for a Star Trek film.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Avatar

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Russian Ark

Centurion


 

Centurion

Michael Fassbender runs for the nearest X-Men movie.

(2010) Swords and Sandals (Magnet) Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, Olga Kurylenko, David Morrissey, Noel Clarke, Riz Ahmed, JJ Field, Liam Cunningham, Imogen Poots, Andreas Wisniewski, Paul Freeman, Ulrich Thomsen, Rachael Stirling, Eoin Macken. Directed by Neil Marshall

War can be boiled down to a basic truth – one group, who want the other to leave, against the second group, who only want to go home. I suppose a lot of wars would end with much less bloodshed if the second group just did what the first wanted – and what they wanted to do anyway.

Quintus Dias (Fassbender) is a centurion of the Roman army (which means he commands 100 men) who survives a massacre in Caledonia (ancient Scotland) where the Picts hold sway. He joins up with the Ninth Legion, commanded by General Titus Virilus (West). Virilus is the commanding officer that Quintus always wanted to have. Brave, bold and every inch a Roman.

But as things will sometimes do even in the best-led of armies, things go wrong. The Ninth is ambushed by the clever Picts who kill the bulk of the army and capture Virilus. Quintus knows his duty is to rescue his commanding officer and his friend but with only a handful of soldiers whose devotion to duty varies wildly from man to man to battle an entire army of vicious Picts, the prospects are grim.

Still, Quintus has to try but in the end the existence of their merry little band is discovered and the Picts send out Etain (Kurylenko), a beautiful, mute and remorseless hunter who hates everything Roman and for good reason. When the remaining Romans take refuge in the home of Arianne (Poots), a healer, things fall in place for a showdown. Will the Romans make it back to Roman lines, or will they fall alone and forgotten in a cold, harsh place far from home?

This could well be seen as an allegory for all war. Put U.S. Soldiers in Iraq, or Russian soldiers in Afghanistan, or French soldiers in Russia and it’s all interchangeable. Neil Marshall, who was responsible for one of the better horror movies of recent years with The Descent has a penchant for realistic looking gore, and his fight scenes show people getting hacked to death and it’s not pretty.

Although there are way too many shots of CGI blood jetting into the snow like a gruesome fountain – the practical blood seems far more realistic – there is a beauty to the bright red of the blood on the white and grey dismal landscape of the Inverness Mountains. There is a stark beauty to the movie that captures how those Romans must have felt – they may as well have been on the moon, so alien was the landscape to them.

Fassbender made this just as he was starting to get some key roles (to this point he was best known for Hunger and for his brief but memorable turn in Inglourious Basterds) and this was certainly a warning shot across the bow that here was a talent to be reckoned with. This is his movie to carry (although initially it doesn’t seem to be) and he does so quite nicely. He shows some charisma and acting skills; you can see why men would follow Quintus into battle.

Kurylenko was best known for her stint as a Bond girl in Quantum of Solace but she’s totally badass here. She kicks a lot of ass and because her character is mute, her ferocity is mainly in her body language and her eyes. Another reviewer compared her character with Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor as far as ass-kicking women go and he was right on the money. Etain is nobody to be trifled with.

I like that Marshall tried to make this as historically accurate as possible. What I don’t like is that the CGI was disappointing, and that there were scenes that simply didn’t work very well. The thing I liked the least was that after Quintus and Virilus the Romans were really indistinguishable from one another and all kind of blended together, making them all spear fodder and really giving the viewer no reason to identify with them or feel any connection with. That hurts the film overall in my opinion.

I’m a sucker for a good swords and sandals movie and this one is pretty solid, even if it isn’t as spectacular as something like, say, 300. Fassbender gives a good performance and even if it is essentially one gigantic chase sequence, it still gives you a little insight into the soldiers and what they’re fighting for. That’s an insight that serves military sorts from any era.

WHY RENT THIS: Fairly realistic from a historical point of view. One of the first instances where Fassbender shows his leading man potential. Kurylenko makes a formidable opponent.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Is uneven in quality. CGI battle sequences are unconvincing. Most of the rest of the cast are made up of characters we’re unable to even tell apart.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly gruesome violence and plenty of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although it is thought that the Picts wore no clothing, the harsh condition on the location shoot made the filmmakers give in to necessity and design warm clothing for the actors to wear on the shoot.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.8M on a $12M production budget; unfortunately this was a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Eagle

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Life

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll


Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll

"If you're gonna make it in this world, you gotta look stylish my son"

(2010) Musical Biography (Tribeca) Andy Serkis, Naomie Harris, Ray Winstone, Olivia Williams, Noel Clarke, Toby Jones, Mackenzie Crook, Bill Milner, Arthur Darvill, James Jagger, Tom Hughes, Shakraj Soornack, Joe Kennedy. Directed by Mat Whitecross

 

Ian Dury was a New Wave/punk-era singer/songwriter who while well-known in his native England remains unappreciated here in the States. In an era when musicians were thumbing their nose at traditional rock music idioms, Dury was happily wearing his musical influences on his sleeve, from funk to jazz to British Music Hall.

He had been afflicted with polio as a child and walked with a cane most of his life; however while his disability certainly got in his way once in awhile, he tended to use it more as a statement; he thought that the attitudes of most governments and international organizations towards those with disabilities to be condescending and arrogant. He flaunted his limp and incorporated it into his act.

He was a force of nature, one that sometimes rained down rage on those who cared about him but there was no doubt that as pop stars go, he had more personality and charisma in one finger than a thousand “American Idol” winners would ever have put together. It’s a shame he didn’t make it on this side of the Atlantic (he was way too English for us to really get him) but songs like “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick,””What a Waste” and “Reasons to Be Cheerful” got into my head early on and have stayed there ever since.

He is played here by Andy Serkis with the subtlety of a rampaging bull. Serkis perfectly captures the essence of Dury, at least how I imagined him to be. Serkis’ malleable face is a mirror for Dury’s who often used his facial expressions as a kind of language of its own. He wasn’t always an easy man to get along with – Chaz Jankel (Hughes), co-writer of many of Dury’s best songs and one of the original Blockheads (Dury’s backing band) was constantly leaving Dury’s band and then returning  – and Dury was sometimes guilty of subtle and not-so-subtle cruelties in his relationships. He is depicted here as conducting a rehearsal with his first band, Kilburn and the High Roads, in his downstairs living room while his first wife Betty (Williams) is giving birth upstairs (which is apparently a myth), and he leaves Betty shortly to move in with a teenaged fan (Harris).

Dury’s relationship to his son Baxter (Milner) is shown as being bittersweet. Baxter has a bit of a case of hero-worship when it comes to his dad (what young boy doesn’t?) and Dury tries very hard to be a good father to his boy as flashbacks show us that Dury’s own father (Winstone) was not the best father in the world either. The Baxter-Dury relationship is really the central heart of the movie, and the scenes with the two of them are mostly when the film is at its best.

I think Whitecross is trying to tell the story the way Ian Dury himself might have told it, with a good deal of flash and sass and not a little bit of sleight o’ hand. At times it becomes confusing with dream sequences, flashbacks and timeline-jumping, which left me a bit mystified at times. Still, one has to give props to the film that had the balls to let Serkis sing with the original Blockheads providing musical accompaniment. That must have been very strange for them. Kudos also for the opening titles being done by Peter Taylor, who did some of Dury’s album covers and was his teacher and mentor when Dury was at art school

The manic energy of Dury is captured and reflected by the film which takes no prisoners and makes no apologies. American audiences, who showed little interest in Dury while he was alive (he died of cancer in 2000 at age 53) showed little in his movie and for that reason perhaps the movie isn’t really made for Americans – many of the references are firmly on the side of the UK. Still, this is a well-made film and Serkis’ performance as Dury is well worth watching. He proves that he is much more than Gollum – and much more than the motion capture king.

WHY RENT THIS: Dury was a fascinating character and Serkis captures his manic energy perfectly.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the references sail far over the heads of American audiences. A bit hard to follow at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of sex, it’s fair share of drugs and a crapload of rock and roll, and just a bit of the violence to keep matters in hand.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The single “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” for which the movie is named, is Dury’s signature track but never charted (while many of his other songs did). It was banned by the BBC after its release.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on director Mat Whitecross’ experiences at the Tribeca film festival.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $530,392 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking that the movie was likely a bit of a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Casanova