Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse


Attack a Navy SEALs family? Oh no, you didn’t…

(2021) Action (Paramount/Amazon) Michael B. Jordan, Jodie Turner-Smith, Jamie Bell, Guy Pearce, Lauren London, Jacob Scipio, Todd Lasance, Jack Kesy, Lucy Russell, Cam Gigandet, Luke Mitchell, Artjom Gilz, Brett Gelman, Merab Ninidze, Alexander Mercury, Colman Domingo, Rae Lim, Sumi Somaskanda, Zee Gunther, Jill Holwerda, Conor Boru, Bella Shaw. Directed by Stefano Sollima

 

It is a tried-and-true action cliché that you can mess with a Navy SEAL, but if you mess with a Navy SEAL’s family, you’re in deep doo-doo because not even God will help you. God knows better.

Navy SEAL John Kelly (Jordan) is part of a team led by Lt. Cmmdr. Karen Greer (Turner-Smith) that goes to Aleppo in civil war-torn Syria to rescue a CIA operative. It appears to have gone without a hitch but something about it feels wrong to Kelly and his suspicions soon prove to be true when it turns out that what they thought were Syrian soldiers were in fact Russians and boy, are they angry about the American operation. Once the SEALs go home, Russian operatives stalk the individual members of the team and kill them.

When they go after Kelly, he survives. Unfortunately, his pregnant wife Pam (London) doesn’t and if you thought the Russians were angry, Kelly is about to get medieval on some Russian tushies. He stalks a Russian diplomat and sets his car on fire, then leaps into the inferno with the diplomat and demands to know who carried out the assassinations. When he gets the name he needs, he exits the car but not before sending the Russian to join the Choir Invisible.

With the support of Secretary of Defense Thomas Clay (Pearce) and the more reluctant support of CIA agent Robert Ritter (Bell), Kelly joins a team that is headed into Mother Russia to track down the operative, Viktor Rykov (Gelman, a curious bit of casting) and exact his revenge but the plane is ambushed and shot down. It becomes clear that the Russians knew they were coming; but who told them and why?

Based on a novel by Tom Clancy in a spin-off from his hugely popular Jack Ryan series (the character of John Kelly, who will be known as John Clark for reasons explained later in the movie, appears in several of those books) has long been in gestation as a film project, but finally saw the light of day after nearly two decades of development – only to run smack dab into the pandemic. Ticketed for theatrical release in 2020, after several delays and postponements the property was finally sold to Amazon who have been having success with their own John Krasinski-led Jack Ryan series seemed to be a perfect fit.

This movie gets an enormous amount of star power from Jordan who has become one of the most charismatic stars in Hollywood. Even when he plays villainous roles, he turns in a performance that actually can be sympathetic. He has an enormous amount of screen presence and he actually elevates what is otherwise a mediocre film into something a little more.

Part of the problem here is that Clancy wrote with a Cold War-era worldview that is a bit off in the 2020s. It’s not that we don’t have an adversarial relationship with Russia these days – of course we do – but it’s a different kind of playing field altogether. Some of the geopolitical content feels a bit dated somehow.

A film like this is going to live and die on its action sequences and while most of them aren’t too bad, there are one or two that stretch believability and make you scratch your head a little bit and say “wouldn’t it be easier if he just…” and that’s never a good thing in an action movie. While action sequences should be breathtaking, there has to be an air of reality to it that viewers believe the derring-do is at least possible. It takes you right out of the movie when it feels implausible.

This isn’t a bad movie and Amazon Prime users get to watch it for no additional charge which makes it even more enticing. Could this have been a better experience in a movie theater? In all likelihood, yes, but it’s not a bad option if you want to watch something loud and that requires little thought on your part.

REASONS TO SEE: Jordan is one of the most watchable stars in Hollywood today.
REASONS TO AVOID: Lacks character development.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jordan is the third actor to play John Clark (John Kelly in this film); Willem Dafoe played him in A Clear and Present Danger and Liev Schreiber played him in The Sum of All Fears, both Jack Ryan films.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/24/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews; Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Clear and Present Danger
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Take Out Girl

The United States vs. Billie Holiday


Lady Day sings the blues.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Paramount) Audra Day, Leslie Jordan, Miss Lawrence, Natasha Lyonne, Trevante Rhodes, Dusan Dukic, Erik LaRay Harvey, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Koumba Ball, Kate MacLellan, Kwasi Songui, Adriane Lenox, Letitia Brookes, Tyler James Williams, Slim Williams, Orville Thompson, Garrett Hedlund, Jeff Corbett, Amanda Strawn. Directed by Lee Daniels

 

For most modern Americans, Billie Holiday is a distant memory of our grandparents, a footnote on the cultural scene whose name might be familiar but whose music isn’t. As our tastes have turned more towards Ariana Grande, Beyonce and Lady Gaga in terms of female performers, few realize that all three – and so many more – owe Holiday a debt of gratitude.

Holiday’s best-known song is “Strange Fruit,” written by the poet-activist Abel Meeropol, depicting the lynching of a black man. The song, even today, is absolutely horrifying and stark. Time magazine voted it the song of the centurn in 1999, and for good reason. The song also got Holiday the attention of the FBI, led by the noted racist J. Edgar Hoover, whose underling and chief of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), Harry Anslinger (Hedlund) remarked that while they couldn’t arrest her for singing a song, they could arrest her for her noted drug use.

From then on, Billie Holiday (Day) was a marked soman. Hounded by the FBN, she was arrested for narcotics use – turned in by undercover agent Jimmy Fletcher (Rhodes) who later became romantically involved with her – and sent to prison for a year. Because of her conviction, she lost her cabaret license which allowed her to perform in nightclubs which was her bread and butter. She was able to get booked at Carnegie Hall, where she delivered a triumphant comeback performance that led to European tours and theater bookings, but Anslinger continued to put the pressure on, even arresting her and handcuffing her as she lay dying on her deathbed at the age of 44.

It’s a sad, disgraceful story that as told here, is largely true, although some things are inventions; the extent of her romantic involvement with Fletcher is unknown as is much of his background. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan Lori-Parks wrote her screenplay based on a single chapter of a Johann Hari book on the war on drugs that detailed how the FBI went after Holiday in the last decade of her life.

We are treated to an absolutely dazzling performance by Day, which has already netted her the Golden Globe in a bit of an upset (it was thought that Frances McDormand had the award sewn up) and puts her on track for the Best Actress Oscar, which she is nominated for. She does her own singing here and does a pretty good approximation of Holiday, although she lacks some of the vocal warmth that Holiday had. She captures Holiday’s feisty, don’t-take-no-crap attitude that was at odds with the amount of abuse she took from the men in her life who abused her physically (and helped her get hooked on heroin) and financially, as well as from a society that didn’t want women of color to speak out against the system. Her refusal to stop singing “Strange Fruit” is portrayed as an act of heroism, which it surely was.

The odd thing here is how the song, which was theoretically at the center of her troubles with the government, isn’t sung completely through here – she reads some of the lyrics at one point and a few lines are sung, but the song remains more of a concept than an actual presence. Even the triumphant Carnegie Hall performance, in which audience members are depicted calling out for the song, curiously doesn’t have her singing it, even though she did perform it that night. Considering how important the song is to the story, and that people are less familiar with the song now than they were even twenty years ago, it’s mystified why we don’t hear more of it.

Daniels weaves in a lot of flashbacks and flash forwards, jumping around in the narrative which can be confusing at times. We do see the absolutely horrific childhood she experienced which certainly led to her need to escape her demons through drugs, alcohol and sex. While her affairs with men are shown pretty graphically, Daniels is a bit coy with her affairs with women, alluding only to one female lover (actress Tallulah Bankhead); she was bisexual and had more than a few female partners during her time.

But that’s no nevermind. This is a much grittier – and less sanitized – version of Holiday than the more well-known portrayal in Lady Sing the Blues and while the movie is on the long side and could have used a bit less emphasis on Anslinger and Fletcher, this is still a high-end movie that deserves to have a wide audience, not just for the story of one of America’s great artists, but on how shabbily she was treated.

REASONS TO SEE: Day gives an award-winning performance. The music is unforgettable. Captures the reality of the African-American experience of the era. Daniels pulls no punches.
REASONS TO AVOID: The presentation is a little bit scattershot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is heavy drug use, profanity, racial epithets, sex and nudity, violence and disturbing images of lynchings.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Evan Ross, who plays an FBI agent in the movie, is the grandson of Diana Ross who played Billie Holiday in Lady Sing the Blues.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews; Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Billie
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Older

What Men Want


Touchdown!

(2019) Romantic Comedy (Paramount) Taraji P. Henson, Aldis Hodge, Richard Roundtree, Tracy Morgan, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Josh Brener, Tamala Jones, Phoebe Robinson, Max Greenfield, Jason Jones, Pete Davidson, Brian Bosworth, Chris Witaske, Erykah Badu, Kellan Lutz, Kausar Mohammed, Paul B. Johnson, Auston Moore, Shane Paul McGhie, Lisa Leslie. Directed by Adam Shankman

In 2000, Mel Gibson had a hit rom-com with What Women Want, in which a bathtub electrocution gave him the power to hear the thoughts of women (but not men). In this gender-reversal update (and I use the term loosely), Henson stars as Ali Davis, a brash and ambitious sports agent working basically at a white boy’s club where she hopes to become partner. When she’s passed over, she demands to know why since she has an impressive list of Olympic athletes with an impressive list of endorsements; her smarmy boss replies “You just don’t connect with men.”

Well, that problem is about to be solved by singer-songwriter Erykah Badu who plays Sister, a wacky psychic who is hired by a bachelorette party that Ali is attending. She supplies Ali with a drug-laced tea and then for good measure, Ali gets knocked upside the head by an oversized dildo. When she comes to, voila! She can hear the thoughts of men (but not women). She hopes to use her new superpower to her own advantage rather than trying to stop Thanos in his evil mission…err., wrong film. In any case, she discovers it isn’t so much what men are thinking that’s important (and non-spoiler alert – I think most women have a pretty good clue what men are generally thinking) but what is inside her own head that really matters.

The movie is full of rom-com clichés and never really excites any sort of glee from the audience. Henson is a talented actress who I’ve been a great fan of for more than a decade, and she does do her best here, but she has to contend with Badu’s shameless overacting (although to be fair Badu is pretty much the most consistently funny in the cast), a script that does her no favors and patter that rather than being snappy falls about as flat as a remake of a comedy about misogyny in the era of #MeToo. Timing matters.

REASONS TO SEE: Henson is a little bit over-the-top but still always watchable.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very cliché.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and sexual content, along with some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first R-rated film to be directed by Shankman.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Epix, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews: Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: What Women Want
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Relic

Bumblebee


A girl and her bug.

(2018) Science Fiction (ParamountHailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Landeborg Jr., John Ortiz, Angela Bassett, Justin Theroux, Pamela Adlon, Jason Drucker, Megyn Price, Rachel Crowther, Grey Griffin, Gracie Dzienny, Peter Cullen (voice), Len Cariou, Marcella Bragio, Steve Blum, Vanessa Ross, Glynn Turman, Kirk Bailey, Jon Bailey, Kevin Kent, Michael Masini, Fred Dryer, Mika Kubo. Directed by Travis Knight

 

After a decade of Michael Bay’s sturm und drang Transformers movies comes a different take in the franchise’s first spin-off…or is it prequel? I guess either appellation works.

With the Decepticons having overrun the Autobots in their ongoing war (if you don’t know what that sentence signifies, you should probably go no further and look for something else to rent), Bumblebee is sent by Optimus Prime (Cullen) to Earth to protect the human race. Unfortunately, he’s tailed by a couple of Decepticon warriors who basically kick the gears out of him, disabling his vocal functions and leaving him nearly dead. He makes like a VW Bug to hide from the evil robots, who are looking hard for him so they can find out where the Autobots are hiding and destroy them once and for all.

But teen Charlie (Steinfeld), mourning her late father, takes a liking to the Bug when she spies him in a scrapyard and decides to rebuild him. You can imagine her surprise when he rebuilds himself. The trouble is that those evil Decepticons have managed to convince the American government that Bumblebee is a threat and the gov’mint sends out iron-jawed Agent Burns (Cena) to locate the wayward Autobot and take him down. All that stands between the human race and total annihilation is a badly damaged robot and a plucky teenage girl. How much more 1987 could you get?

Quite a bit, judging from the wonderful soundtrack here. Still, this is a refreshing tonal change for the series which had fallen into self-parody with the last movie, Transformers: The Last Knight. While the movie starts out with a Bay-esque scene of mayhem and massive robot carnage, the movie abruptly shifts gears and becomes something of a buddy movie. Steinfeld is a very talented actress and not many could pull off doing a buddy movie with a car, but she does it pretty well, playing the 80s tomboy despite not having been born until the following decade.

But it’s the mayhem that most people buy tickets to these movies for, and there’s plenty of that. Knight, who has mostly worked with stop-motion animation with Laika, has a good sense of how to stage an action set piece but also has a good sense of balance with character development and plot. He even manages to inject a little pathos and humor into the mix, something Bay wasn’t known for.

REASONS TO SEE: Excellent action sequences. Steinfeld gives an affecting performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: A fair number of clichés are present.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of sci-fi action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Steinfeld was born nine years after the movie was set, so she had to be taught how to use some of the props such as the Walkman.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Epix, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Sling TV, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews; Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Hero 6
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Union Bridge

Instant Family


Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne get a little cuddle time in.

(2018) Family Comedy (ParamountMark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Isabela Moner, Gustavo Quiroz, Julianna Gamiz, Octavia Spencer, Tig Notaro, Tom Segura, Allyn Rachel, Brittney Rentschler, Jody Thompson, Margo Martindale, Julie Hagerty, Michael O’Keefe, Joan Cusack, Edson Gary Weeks, Kenneth Israel, Hampton Fluker, Randy Havens, Iliza Schlesinger. Directed by Sean Anders

 

Having been an instant Dad, coming into a family in which there were already children, I imagine I have a bit of a leg up on the adoption comedy Instant Family. In some ways, the movie tackles some serious issues with the foster care system and of dealing with kids who have been through the ringer. It also has some humor which can be charitably described as weak; on top of it you have an awful lot of cursing, a fair amount of which is done by the kids themselves. This is a movie that isn’t quite sure what it wants to be.

Which is weird because writer-director Anders based the film on his own experiences adopting three Hispanic children, which is what childless Yuppie couple Pete (Wahlberg) and Ellie (Byrne) do. They end up with problematic teen Lizzy (Moner) who still harbors hope of reuniting with her birth mother, her little brother Juan (Quiroz) who is as clumsy as any anxious kid is and whose first instinct is to always apologize profusely whether he’s responsible or not, and finally little Lita (Gamiz) who is a bundle of need and a volcano when she doesn’t get what she wants.

Trying to guide these prospective parents through the process are agency workers Karen (Spencer) and Sharon (Notaro), as well as Ellie’s introspective mom (Hagerty) and Pete’s bulldozer of a mom (Martindale). When the birth mom of the kids, who has a history of drug addiction, decides she wants her kids back, Pete and Ellie, who have at times regretted their decision, suddenly realize that they need these kids as much or more than they need them.

It’s definitely a movie with all the feels, the kind of thing that infuriates a whole lot of movie critics who hate being emotionally manipulated, but in all honesty, I think Instant Family comes to its emotional high and lows honestly. Wahlberg is at his most charming here, and he has a solid cast to back him up including Oscar winner Spencer, Notaro (one of the finest comedians of our time) and particularly Martindale who over the past decade has become one of the most reliable and interesting character actresses in Hollywood.

It’s a shame that there’s so much here that doesn’t work, from Isabelle Moner doing her best to channel Selena Gomez, to the somewhat lame humor which never quite hits the mark, to the script that doesn’t really rise above its own limitations. I think the movie would have been better served to try less to be light comedy and harder to be a bit more realistic about the pitfalls – and joys – of being a foster parent can be. It’s not quite a Hallmark Channel movie, but it needed a little more firm direction in terms of what it wanted to be.

REASONS TO SEE: Reasonably heartwarming.
REASONS TO AVOID: Plays it safe by following established formulas and really doesn’t know what kind of movie it wants to be.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some sexual material, adult thematic material and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is loosely based on the real-life experiences of director Sean Anders, who adopted three Hispanic kids.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Epix, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews, Metacritic: 57/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blended
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Liz & Ray

Overlord (2018)


War is literally hell.

(2018) Horror (Paramount) Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Mathilde Olivier, Pilou Asbæk, John Magaro, Iain de Caestecker, Jacob Anderson, Dominic Applewhite, Glanny Taufer, Joseph Quin, Bokeem Woodbine, Erich Redman, Mark McKenna, Hayley Carmichael, Marc Rissmann, Meg Foster, Sarah Finigan, Gunther Wurger, Bart Lambert, Michael Epp, Alison Thea-Skot. Directed by Julius Avery

 

War is hell, but some wars are more hellish than others. The evil that was Nazi Germany makes for fertile ground for all sorts of horrors, both real and imagined.

The 101st Airborne Division parachutes into occupied France in preparation for D-Day. Their mission is to take out a radio tower that will mess up Nazi communications and help the Allies when the troops hit the beach. The survivors of the drop have to find their way to the church upon which the tower sits. They are led by Corporal Ford (Russell), who inherited the job when everyone above him in rank bought the farm during the drop, and Private Boyce (Adepo), a young naive recruit seeing his first action of the war. They are aided by scavenger Chloe (Olivier) who leads them to the village where the church is.

Unfortunately for the good guys, the church is also a place where the Nazis are conducting unspeakable medical experiments, trying to create super-soldiers for their thousand-year Reich, and they are succeeding in their attempts. It will be up to the Americans to not only take out the tower but the research facility if the Allies are to have any hope of winning the war.

This film moves in fits and starts, with some sequences of almost impossible intensity (like the opening when paratroopers desperately leap out of a shot-up, crashing plane through flames and gunfire) while other sequences allow the audience to catch their breath. The filmmakers opted for practical effects over CGI in most cases and that serves the movie well.

However when we finally get to the super-soldiers, they are a bit on the disappointing side. They are very much “been there seen that.” The mainly little-known cast also doesn’t particularly distinguish themselves (Adepo and Russell are exceptions, and Asbæk does make a mighty hissable villain) and the plot at times feels like we’ve seen it all before.

Nonetheless the movie is a ride indeed, and those who like rides are going to enjoy this one. There is a ton of gore and the really squeamish might feel their gorge rise a bit, but the viscera never overwhelms the viewer. This makes for some great popcorn viewing, whether at Halloween time or whenever you’re in the mood for a fun romp through monster-infested Nazi Germany.

REASONS TO SEE: Very much a roller coaster ride.
REASONS TO AVOID: The monsters are underwhelming.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of strong bloody violence throughout, a fair amount of profanity, some disturbing images and brief sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rumors to the contrary, this film is not a part of the Cloverfield universe.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Hulu, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/3/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews: Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frankenstein’s Army
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
White Boy Rick

Book Club


In any decade, nobody parties like Candice Bergen.

(2018) Romantic Comedy (Paramount) Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, Andy Garcia, Craig T. Nelson, Don Johnson, Ed Begley Jr., Richard Dreyfuss, Wallace Shawn, Alicia Silverstone, Katie Aselton, Mircea Monroe, Tommy Dewey, John Shartzer, Ravi Kapoor, Lili Bordán, Marisa Chen Moller, Amanda Martin. Directed by Bill Holderman

 

Four literate ladies have been friends for ages and have seen the curvature of their lives move towards the downward slope. One of the hallmarks of their friendship is their regular book club meetings in which the four women read a book and then discuss it the following week. The membership includes Vivian (Fonda) the somewhat oversexed owner of a boutique luxury hotel chain; Sharon (Bergen), a divorced judge who is notoriously career-driven; Diane (Keaton), a recent widow whose bossy daughters (Silverstone and Aselton interchangeably) want her to move to Scottsdale into a basement apartment even though she’s perfectly happy and capable of supporting herself in Los Angeles and finally restaurateur Carol (Steenburgen) whose husband (Nelson) has been notably absent in the bedroom of late – corresponding with his retirement. The reading of Fifty Shades of Grey inspires them to ramp up their love lives.

This is one of those films that perpetuates the myth that senior sexuality is at best cute and at worst a colossal punchline to a bad joke. Being that I’m climbing towards those rarefied age climes, perhaps I’m a little more sensitive to that sort of thing but with modern medicine allowing us to live longer than we used to, sex drives are correspondingly lasting well into our sixties and seventies, sometimes even into our eighties. While there may be those who still giggle at the thought of Granny and Grampy getting busy, it’s not realistic anymore to expect that they don’t.

At least Holderman, a veteran producer making his directing debut, doesn’t waste the talents of his cast. All of these pros deliver performances that range from strong to terrific. Bergen in particular brought to mind past glories as we’re reminded watching her that there has never been another Murphy Brown and there likely never will be.

The film suffers from having too many characters and not enough backstory; I would have been much happier with fewer but better developed characters in the mix. Still, I’m glad that these ladies are still drawing a paycheck and I would love to see much more of them, albeit in better films than this one. At least it has a killer soundtrack going for it.

REASONS TO SEE: The great cast also gets a great soundtrack.
REASONS TO AVOID: The myth that senior citizens having a sexual life is ridiculous is perpetuated here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity including sexual references as well as other sex-related content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bergen, Fonda and Keaton all dated Warren Beatty at one time or another.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/12/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews: Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Boynton Beach Club
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Patient 001

A Quiet Place


Splish splash I was taking a bath.

(2018) Horror (Paramount) John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, Cade Woodward, Leon Russom, Rhonda Pell. Directed by John Krasinski

 

Who doesn’t love a little peace and quiet from time to time? Here is a movie that gives you plenty of the latter but not a whole lot of the former.

The premise is fiendishly simple; the Earth has been invaded by insect-like alien creatures who, blind, hunt exclusively by hearing. The slightest noise will bring the down on you and your end will not be pleasant. The Abbott family – papa Lee (Krasinski), mama Evelyn (Blunt), daughter and eldest child Regan (Simmonds) – who in a bit of intentional irony is deaf – middle son Marcus (Jupe) and youngest son beau (Woodward) try to survive in a world where noise is death, a point driven home in the opening scene in a visceral and shocking manner.

Evelyn, to make things worse, is pregnant and her due date rapidly approaches. As any woman will tell you there is nothing quiet about childbirth and certainly nothing quiet about babies. Papa Lee however isn’t willing to say die and has things pretty much figured out – except that almost nothing goes the way he plans it.

The creatures in this movie are terrific; they make logical sense and in fact this is a horror movie that creates its own universe and the rules therein and sticks to them. This is essentially a silent movie although there is ambient noise but it isn’t always quiet. In this space, nobody had better hear you scream.

The performances here are really, really good from Krasinski as the embattled father butting heads with his headstrong daughter and his wife who thinks he’s being too hard on her and Simmonds – so good in Wonderstruck – proves that performance wasn’t a fluke. It is Blunt however who is the most memorable here. Blunt is so emotionally expressive; she acts mainly with body language and facial expression without dialogue to aid her, she communicates directly with her audience without needing subtitles. While I’m not sure Oscar will take notice, she should at least be considered for a Best Actress nod.

Krasinski as a director is promising enough; while he hasn’t broken through to the A-List quite yet as an actor, he once again shows he has the talent to get there eventually. It may turn out that his future lies in directing, which isn’t an easy path to take. Krasinski shows he is more than capable enough to follow that path. Still, it’s hard to dismiss his acting skills, particularly in light of a poignant scene near the end of the movie in which a father’s love shines brightest in the darkness.

This is an outstanding horror movie that is going to end up as one of the year’s best chillers. It’s a shame if you didn’t already catch it on the big screen which is where this would be much more effective; however if you didn’t you at least have the opportunity to see it on your own home video setup. Don’t make the same mistake twice; even if you’re not fond of genre movies you should see this one. Even film buffs are raving about it.

REASONS TO GO: Krasinski the director keeps the tension high throughout and Krasinski the actor once again shows star quality. The monster in this film is outstanding.
REASONS TO STAY: The opening scene may be too shocking and disturbing for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence and bloody images, alongside some children in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the entire film not a single door is opened or closd.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Paramount Movies, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews: Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: See No Evil
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Across the River

Annihilation


A team of women enter a brave new world.

(2018) Science Fiction (Paramount) Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tuva Novotny, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac, Benedict Wong, Sonoya Mizuno, Sammy Hayman, Josh Danford, Kristen McGarrity, Bern Collaco, Kumud Pant, Richard Clark, Hiten Patel, Bobby Mahmi, Helena Holmes, Mairead Armstrong, Crystal Clarke, Odette Mitchell, Honey Holmes. Directed by Alex Garland

 

Sometimes we wonder what other worlds look like; are they beautiful like ours or barren and dismal? It stands to reason that worlds that are like ours will have some differences of flora and fauna. But if the intelligent species of those worlds decided to invade ours, wouldn’t they have to remake it in our image?

That seems to be the case. In a zone called The Shimmer, a state park has been surrounded by a force field that people can pass through. Those who have passed through however, have never returned. That includes Kane (Isaac), the husband of Lena (Portman) who is a medical doctor, a biology professor who like her husband has a military background. A year has passed by since his disappearance. Then, something happens that throws her life into disarray.

Now she needs to know what happened to Kane in the Shimmer. She meets with Dr. Ventress (Leigh), the project leader in trying to find out what the Shimmer is and what it means for humanity. Is it the beginning of the end? Is it a natural phenomenon? An invasion? A portal into another dimension? Inquiring minds need to know.

So a team of women are sent into see if they can find the answers, led by Ventress but including Anya (Rodriguez), Cass (Novotny) and Josie (Thompson). What they will find inside the Shimmer is not what they were expecting, but it is nonetheless a dangerous place that they can’t let their guard down not even for a moment. Not against the environment – and not against each other. After all, what would a sci-fi film be without at least some of the characters bearing deep dark hidden secrets?

This could easily have been a run of the mill creature feature (and there are several creatures to be found in this film, some damn frightening) but that’s just not the way Garland operates. This is a thinking person’s sci-fi, based on a novel by Jeff VanderMeer. It is the first book in a trilogy, which is probably what attracted Paramount in the first place – the potential for a franchise. That’s not exactly what they got, which is probably why the studio’s financial department demanded changes in the film (particularly the ending) because it was “too cerebral.” Producer Scott Rudin, who had the final cut negotiated in his contract, refused and the movie went out as Garland wanted it.

There is certainly some allegory here, both in the sense of how our own planet’s environment is changing and the lethal consequences that will arise as part of that. There are a few logical holes that I really can’t go into without spoiling the plot so I won’t and the movie runs just shy of two hours which is about a half hour too long. I like the intelligence of the script but I could have done with a little less travelogue.

The visuals are absolutely breathtaking and highly imaginative; there are images here that are going to stick with you for a long time to come, the stuff of both dreams and nightmares. The performances are a little hit and miss; at times Portman doesn’t seem to be in sync with what’s going on although it is true that her character does have a lot on her mind. However, Leigh gives a stellar performance that reminds us that she is an Oscar-nominated performer who is one of the most underrated actresses in Hollywood.

Whether you like this or not is going to depend heavily on whether you prefer to use science fiction as an escape or as illumination. Those who prefer the latter will find rich material to mine here; those who prefer the former are going to end up with a headache. I’m sort of in the middle on this one; it’s certainly flawed but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t enough here to check out, particularly if you like your movies to challenge you. This one does that for certain.

REASONS TO GO: The visuals are spectacular. Leigh gives a stellar performance.
REASONS TO STAY: The story is a little bit disjointed. The film runs way too long, maybe a good 40 minutes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of violence and some bloody images, plenty of profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Isaac and Mizuno worked with Garland on his previous film Ex-Machina.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Paramount Movies, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Avatar
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town

Downsizing


Kristen Wiig and Matt Damon have no idea how small-minded people can be.

(2017) Science Fiction (Paramount) Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Rolf Lassgård, Ingjerd Egeberg, Udo Kier, Søren Pilmark, Jayne Houdyshell, Jason Sudeikis, Maribeth Monroe, Phil Reeves, James Van Der Beek, Alison J. Palmer, Tim Driscoll, Kristen Thomson, Kevin Patrick Kunkel, Patrick Gallagher, Linda H. Anderson. Directed by Alexander Payne

 

This is an example of a movie that doesn’t know what it wants to be. Alexander Payne is one of the finest filmmakers on the planet but I suppose even the best have off-projects. This is his.

In Downsizing, scientists looking at Earth’s environmental challenges of climate change and limited resources come up with a solution – smaller people. Norwegian scientists Dr. Asbjørnsen (Lassgård) and Dr. Jacobsen (Pilmark) make a startling breakthrough – a machine that can shrink people to about five inches tall. A colony is founded in Norway by Dr. Asbjørnsen and his wife (Egeberg) and leads to colonies for the downsized as the folks who have been shrunk are called.

There are some incentives to do that. Because their need for resources is less, their wealth is stretched much further. Someone who has $30,000 in savings can be a millionaire. Financially strapped couple Paul (Damon) and Audrey (Wiig) Safranek decide to take the plunge but at the last moment Audrey changes her mind, leaving Paul five inches tall and about to be divorced. Audrey gets half of everything in the settlement which means that Paul can’t live in the palatial mansion he’d purchased but has to move to an upscale condo while working as a phone salesman for Land’s End.

One of his neighbors is Dusan Mirkovic (Waltz) who is everything that Paul isn’t; outgoing, a bon vivant, adventurous and a risk taker. Dusan makes income on the black market, supplying luxury items like cigars and champagne for the various Downsized developments. Through Dusan Paul meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Chau), a Vietnamese activist whose political activities got her forcibly shrunk and a leg removed. She is walking around on a poorly constructed prosthetic that causes her to limp and is likely to cause some damage to her hips in years to come. Paul at first offers to help her get fitted for a better prosthetic but quickly finds the woman abrasive and pushy. He also finds that she has a generous soul that is all about helping those around her. Paul realizes that he has found a calling for himself, something he’d always missed as a normal-sized guy – but events in the larger world are putting all of his plans for his future into turmoil.

The first part of the movie seems to be a comedy and that’s how the movie was marketed but it really isn’t that. The movie seems to be an environmental call to arms but it isn’t that either. This simply put smacks of studio interference but the trouble is I’m not sure which part of the movie Payne is responsible for. The two sides certainly don’t integrate well.

That’s a shame because there are things to admire in both sides of the film. There are some very salient thoughts that this film forces the viewer to think about; there are also some genuinely funny moments. There was a chance to give the viewer a sense of wonder, seeing the world from a different perspective but Payne didn’t seize the opportunity and so basically the perspective is just the same as it would be from a normal perspective.

There are also terrible lapses in logic; the world of the very small isn’t well thought-out. The Norwegian colony should have had issues with insects and other pests; nope. We see butterflies from time to time but what about bees, wasps, mosquitoes, house flies? Not to mention beetles, bugs and spiders. It rains a lot of the time in Leisure World. Wouldn’t the rain drops seem bigger to people who are smaller? They look like regular rain though.

I also had trouble with the Ngoc Tran character. You can accuse me of cultural insensitivity if you like, but she is so pushy, so aggressive and so demanding that I can’t for the life of me figure out why someone as white bread as Paul would fall in love with her. It doesn’t make sense and the relationship is central to the movie.

I really wanted to like this movie and it had everything going for it; a terrific cast, a great concept and one of the best directors in the world. It just doesn’t work at all for me and has to be one of the biggest disappointments of 2017.

REASONS TO GO: The movie does have some thought-provoking moments. At least Payne doesn’t do what you expect him to in terms of where the plot goes.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie loses cohesion in the second half and nearly falls apart. There are too many lapses in logic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some sexual references, graphic nudity and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The production crew used an actual Omaha Steaks plant for filming and employees were used as extras in the scenes filmed there.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews: Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Secret World of Arrietty
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Permission