Boss Level


Reliving the future.

(2021) Action (Hulu) Frank Grillo, Mel Gibson, Naomi Watts, Will Sasso, Annabelle Wallis, Sheaun McKinney, Selina Lo, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Jeong, Meadow Williams, Mathilde Ollivier, Rio Grillo, Armida Lopez, Buster Reeves, Eric Etebari, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Rashad Evans, Joe Knezevich, Adam Simon, Rob Gronkowski, Melanie Kiran. Directed by Joe Carnahan

 

It goes without saying that an action movie should have thrilling action sequences. But it is equally important that an action movie be fun. So many of them take themselves so seriously that we end up wondering when Scorsese started making mindless action flicks. Well, he hasn’t yet but he might just approve of this one. Or, he might not. You be the judge.

Roy Pulver (F. Grillo) wakes up with a machete whistling towards his head. Being an ex-Delta Force commando who has a particular set of skills, he is able to dodge his would-be killer, and also avoid the chain gun being fired at his apartment from a hovering helicopter. As the final wreckage of his place becomes explosive (no damage deposit return for Roy), he leaps out into a passing dump truck, rolls gracefully into the street with his upswept coif neatly in place, and commandeers a sports car from a screaming, whining civilian and roars off, to be chased by a legion of assassins. Roy has no idea who wants him dead, or why. All he knows is that in the end, they kill him and always by 12:47pm. Then he wakes up and starts the whole process all over again.

Now, this concept has been used in a variety of genres with results that vary in quality. I have news for you, though – this one is better than most. It has an incredible cast, including Gibson as the well-meaning but out of his mind military-corporate bad guy (Gibson is getting a second career as a heavy after he self-sabotaged his A-list career as the kind of action hero that might well have had the lead heroic role in the movie had it been made in 1987), Watts as Roy’s scientist ex-wife who works for Gibson, Sasso as Gibson’s major-domo, Jeong as a wise-cracking bartender, Yeoh as a legendary sword master and so on. Roy is beset by a group of assassins each with their own gimmick, from the guy who looks suspiciously like him (whom he calls “Roy #2”) to a pair of Teutonic twins of African descent and grumpy disposition as well as a smug self-aggrandizing Asian swordswoman who announces her name every time she dispatches poor old Roy and confirming that she, in fact, is the one responsible for the carnage. She probably needs to talk to a legal expert.

If you think of this as an action-packed videogame, you will likely come as close as you’re going to in understanding what this movie is about. My advice is not to think too hard about it; best to just go with the flow and mow down baddies while your perfectly coifed hair remains uncannily in place. The movie plays a lot like a videogame (the title gives it away) and gamers will likely find this of slight interest but would probably prefer to play a game over seeing a movie. Gamers are natural-born control freaks, don’t you know?

As for the fun quotient, it’s through the roof. This isn’t meant to be taken too seriously; it moves at a pace equivalent to the chain gun fire that punctuates every morning in Roy’s apartment. You’re not really given a whole lot of time to think, although if you do you’re apt to get a headache so I would advise against it. It’s big, loud and dumb with a sick soundtrack that will keep your grin fixed as immovably in place as Grillo’s hair, and it requires no investment whatsoever other than the hour and a quarter of the movie’s compact running time. It’s a wise investment, though; action movies are rapidly morphing into big budget eye candy that requires the entire population of China to buy a ticket in order to almost break even at the box office. While there are some pretty nifty special effects (and Grillo’s hair is clearly either green screened, or a product of alien technology), it doesn’t appear they broke the bank with their budget and Grillo, it turns out, is a companionable action star who you will have no problem rooting for. If there are a few too many side quests (such as Roy trying to get to know his son, who isn’t aware that Roy is his dad – now that’s kind of messed up) it can be forgiven because Carnahan, already one of the best at action in the business, packs so much into it’s short running time you don’t begrudge a little padding. This one is worth getting a subscription to Hulu for all by itself and when you throw in the upcoming animated M.O.D.O.K. series with Patton Oswald waiting in the wings, you probably should seriously consider it.

REASONS TO SEE: Captures the charm of a side-scrolling shooter game. Frenetic and funny.
REASONS TO AVOID: As with most pictures with this gimmick, it does eventually start to get old.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s all sorts of violence and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Roy’s son Joe is played by Frank Grillo’w real-life son Rio.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/7/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews; Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Edge of Tomorrow
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Say Your Prayers

Bliss (2021)


Skating through life.

(2021) Science Fiction (Amazon Owen Wilson, Salma Hayek, Nesta Cooper, Jorge Landeborg Jr., Ronny Chieng, Steve Zissis, Josh Leonard, Madeline Zima, Bill Nye, Slavoj Zizek, DeRon Horton, Eugene Young, Dayne Catalano, Adam William Zastrow, Lora Lee, Darin Cooper, Roberto Montesinos, Kosah Rukavina, Tanya Alexander, Debbie Fan. Directed by Mike Cahill

In a speech in 1977, science fiction author Philip K. Dick posited the idea that the world we live in is not reality but a computer simulation, predating The Matrix by more than a decade. But what is reality, exactly? If our senses can be manipulated, who’s to say that what reality is may not necessarily be what we perceive it to be?

The reality that Greg Whittle (Wilson) lives in isn’t too appealing. He works in a phone bank whose drones endlessly apologize to callers for whatever technical difficulties they may be experiencing without offering any sort of solution to fix it. Greg is a professional apologist and he’s not even that good at it; much of his time is spent daydreaming, doodling a beautiful palatial mansion that he could never possibly afford to live in unless he had a rich trillionaire uncle that he didn’t know about.

His doodling hasn’t gone unnoticed and he is called into his boss’ office where his employment is terminated. However, when Greg accidentally kills his boss, he panics, hiding the body and running across the street to a bar for a cocktail to calm his nerves. There he meets Isabel (Hayek), an apparently  homeless woman with a fantastic story; the reality that Greg is in is a computer construct and most of the people, including Greg’s boss, aren’t real. Because Isabel is real, she can manipulate the computer program by ingesting yellow crystals through the nose, and to prove it to him, manipulates reality to make it appear as if what happened to Greg’s boss was a suicide.

At last, Isabel takes Greg into the real world, accessed by means of ingesting the much rarer blue crystals – so rare that they are unable to get the full dosage needed for both of them to remain in the real world. There, Greg finds a Utopia where poverty has been eradicated, labor is done mainly by mechanical means and most people live a life of leisure devoted to artistic and scientific pursuits. The home that Greg has been doodling turns out to be the place where he lives. But because they were unable to get the full dose of blue crystals, Isabel and Greg need to return into the computer-generated world to acquire a full dosage – plus there’s the matter of Greg’s daughter Emily (Cooper) who isn’t real, but whom Greg is devoted to nonetheless. In the end, Isabel and Greg are only able to gather enough blue crystals to send one of them back to Utopia. Which one will stay?

Bliss is meant to be a 103 minute mindfuck, meant to make you try to figure out which reality was real and which was the simulation – or maybe both of them are simulations. Or maybe both of them are real. You can get a real headache trying to keep it straight.

It’s a great premise, but unfortunately the execution is weak. For one thing, there seems to have been some fudging on the science and the economics; for example, one of the reasons poverty has been eliminated was that asteroid mining brought an influx of new wealth into the global economy, but if you study economic history (as in 17th century Spain, for example) you will realize that kind of influx of wealth tends to bring ruinous inflation that actually wrecks the economy. And the likelihood that those who made trillions of dollars from the ining enterprise would then donate an annual salary of half a million dollars a year to every living adult is so unlikely to occur as to be virtually impossible.

Also, while Wilson and Hayek are both talented individually, they don’t mesh well together here. Wilson’s laid-back persona almost necessitates some kind of balancing counter-performance and so Hayek seems compelled to get almost shrill in order to bring some energy to the proceedings. And considering that they are supposed to be soulmates, you never feel any sort of attraction between the two of them. I give points for Wilson doing the type of role he doesn’t take on very often, but unfortunately it isn’t enough here.

The ending, which I won’t reveal here, also feels largely unearned and unsatisfying. This is a movie with plenty of good ideas, but they don’t seem to have been thought out very well. Cahill has a tendency to overexplain (we spend an inordinate amount of time hearing about the various efficacies of the crystals and why they need to be snorted and not eaten) and at times it gets in the way of the story. Sometimes, it’s better to just say “this is the way things are in this world” and let the audience fill in the blanks.

REASONS TO SEE: Wilson tackles a role outside his comfort zone.
REASONS TO AVOID: The science doesn’t appear to have been very well thought-out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a fair amount of violence and some scenes of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cahill studied economics at Georgetown; while a student there he struck up a friendship with future actress Brit Marling.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 28% positive reviews; Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Matrix
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Cowboys

Rampage


George of the Urban Jungle and the Rock try to out-scary face one another.

(2018) Adventure (New Line) Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Malin Akerman, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jake Lacy, Joe Manganiello, Marley Shelton, P.J. Byrne, Demetrius Grosse, Jack Quaid, Breanne Hill, Matt Gerald, Will Yun Lee, Urijah Faber, Bruce Blackshear, Jason Liles, Mat Wells, Stephen Dunleavy, Danny Le Boyer, Alan Boell, Alyssa Brooke. Directed by Brad Peyton

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the movies, it’s that when you mess with mother nature it tends to come back and bite you in the ass eventually. That’s a lesson that seems lost on modern corporate America (and the regulatory agencies that are supposed to reign them in but that’s a different story).

When a space station explodes after a lab rat gets loose and tears the crew apart, the pathogen that caused the rat to mutate falls back to Earth, affecting a gator in the Everglades, a wolf in the Minnesota woods – and a gentle albino ape who dwells in the San Diego zoo. The primatologist who is studying George, Davis Okoye (Johnson) is understandably peeved but when government sorts led by the cheerful and shamefully Texan Harvey Russell (Morgan), the Rock’s biceps begin to twitch. When George, like the wolf and the alligator, begins to grow in size to something approaching a Japanese monster movie, behave aggressively and even savagely (they’re animals; who knew?) and for a fairly ludicrous plot reason decide to converge on Chicago and tear the city limb from limb, well the eyebrows arch and the people’s elbow start itching for a fight.

Based on an Atari-era videogame (the console box for which can be seen in the background of the office of the sibling corporate types (Akerman and Lacy) who are behind the pathogen, the movie seemed to have all the elements of a summer blockbuster, particularly Johnson whose easygoing charm and likability have propelled him onto the Hollywood A-list. However, Johnson is essentially on autopilot here. This is far from his finest hour and although he’s not the reason this movie fails to succeed (a painfully cliché script is largely to glame), he certainly doesn’t elevate it either.

Morgan as the federal agent who really wants to be a Texas Ranger and Akerman as a heartless corporate bitch are actually the actors who are the most watchable here. The CGI creations are also pretty nifty. However the mayhem – like many Transformers movies – is so overwhelming it becomes almost too much to take in; the mind becomes numbed to the carnage as buildings fall, helicopters are swatted from the sky and people are eaten like…well, energy pills in a videogame which in the original game, people were.

I’m not against mindless fun but the filmmakers ask us to take an awful lot on faith and after awhile the plot holes become too enormous to overcome. The human characters tend to be more like cartoons than the CGI which I find ironic in an amusing kind of way but I didn’t at the time I was watching this. There were a lot of things that could have been done with this premise to make this film better than it turned out to be but Peyton and perhaps the studio suits went the tried and true safe route and ended up making a cookie cutter movie that is neither satisfying or even more than barely recommendable.

REASONS TO GO: Morgan and Akerman acquit themselves well. The CGI is excellent.
REASONS TO STAY: This movie is dumb as a rock. Most of the characters are straight out of cartoons.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of video game-like violence, destruction and general mayhem. There’s also some brief mild profanity  and some crude gestures.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Despite the tepid aggregate score, Rampage is currently the highest-scoring video game adaptation in the history of Rotten Tomatoes.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/10/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kong: Skull Island
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Mercury 13

Instinct


Instinct

Cuba Gooding Jr. marvels at Anthony Hopkins hair growth after a wild weekend.

(1999) Thriller (Touchstone) Anthony Hopkins, Cuba Gooding Jr., Donald Sutherland, Maura Tierney, George Dzundza, John Ashton, John Aylward, Thomas Q. Morris, Doug Spinuzza, Paul Bates, Kim Ingram, Paul Collins, Louanne Stephens. Directed by Jon Turtletaub

 

What makes a human being? What separates us from the animals? And are we necessarily better off that way? Tough questions, any one of which would make a pretty fascinating movie. Instinct tries to tackle all three and winds up satisfactorily addressing none. However, it does make for a fine character study.

 Dr. Ethan Powell (Hopkins), a noted anthropologist, disappears while observing gorillas on a scientific expedition to Africa. When he resurfaces two years later, he is feral, homicidal, unwilling to speak and seemingly psychotic. No amount of therapy seems to be able to help, but Dr. Theo Caldwell (Gooding), a self-possessed and career-oriented psychologist with bigger ambitions, lobbies to assess Dr. Powell’s mental status and wins the job.

At first, the relationship is adversarial, but with the help of Dr. Powell’s photographer daughter Lynn (Tierney), Dr. Caldwell begins to make progress, getting the heretofore silent anthropologist speaking and finally the two begin to teach each other about life, humanity and everything else important, as we find out what really happened in Africa. Meanwhile, the brutal conditions in the prison Dr. Powell is residing in threaten that progress completely.

The cast here is uniformly fine, with Hopkins – perhaps the best pure actor in Hollywood today – giving a positively eerie performance. Gooding is likable enough, able to project the vulnerability beneath the self-confident veneer of the ambitious psychologist. Also worthy of note are Donald Sutherland as a mentor figure for Dr. Caldwell, John  Aylward as a bureaucratic warden and John Ashton as a sadistic guard.

The problem with Instinct is that for all its good intentions, it really doesn’t explore the underlying questions with anything resembling depth. Dr. Caldwell’s personal transformation is the focus here, but it seems a bit too pat. Powell’s own change of heart is a bit too abrupt and is never really explained much. It’s along the lines of “You need to see your daughter.” “I don’t want to.” “Why not?” “OK, OK, stop hassling me, you win, I’ll see her.” You get the drift. It’s like arriving at the destination without taking the journey – it may be more efficient, but then you miss the framework. Even the Mona Lisa needs a frame.

Instinct is all about veneer and the true person that dwells beneath. Civilization, according to the filmmakers, is a corrupt expression of our own vanity and greed, and should be excised. It ennobles the animal kingdom to almost preposterous dimensions. The truth about critters, folks, is that they live in the here and now, and have no other frame of reference beyond that. No right and wrong. The gorillas that Dr. Powell studies so rapturously would not hesitate in real life to tear the throat out of any crybaby scholar who violated their territory as thoroughly as he does.

Is the forest safer than an American city, as Dr. Powell suggests? Perhaps it is. But I guarantee you that the jungle has its own dangers that will take your life just as ruthlessly. Instinct posits that humans more in touch with their animal side are better for that connection may play well at PETA benefits, but shows absolutely no insight or understanding of animals…or humans.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Gooding and Hopkins. Interesting subject matter.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Takes shortcuts. Lacks understanding.

FAMILY MATTERS: Hopkins’ Dr. Powell exhibits intensely violent behavior and the subject matter might be a little much for the kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of Dr. Powell was originally offered to Sean Connery who declined it.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $34.1M on an $80M production budget; the movie was a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Congo

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Skin

Thor


Thor

Thor is a bit perplexed as Odin extolls the joys of fava beans and a nice Chianti.

(2011) Superhero (Paramount) Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgard, Rene Russo, Idris Elba, Kat Dennings, Ray Stevenson, Clark Gregg, Colm Feore, Josh Dallas, Jaimie Alexander, Tadanobu Asano. Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Part of the maturing process is realizing that, in fact, you don’t know everything. Most parents will tell you that this is a condition that afflicts most teenagers, some worse than others. Of course, if your teenager happens to be a God, that can be a bit overwhelming to deal with.

Thor (Hemsworth) is the God of Thunder and son of Odin (Hopkins), the Highfather of the Norse Gods. Thor isn’t exactly a teenager but he acts like one – reckless, arrogant and foolish. The mortal enemies of the Gods are the Frost Giants, whom Odin defeated a thousand years before and took their most fearsome weapon from them. Now, a trio of them has attempted to steal it back, unsuccessfully which cheeses off Thor big time. Not just because they dared to cross the borders of Asgard itself, which Thor sees as an act of war – but because they did it on the day that Odin named him his heir over his younger brother Loki (Hiddleston).

So Thor decides to pay the Frost Giants a little visit, taking along his good friends the Warriors Three – handsome Fandral (Dallas), taciturn Hogun (Asano) and voluminous Volstagg (Stevenson), as well as Loki  and Sif (Alexander), an intense but loyal female warrior. To get there they must cross Bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge which is guarded by the grim Heimdal (Elba), who normally wouldn’t allow Thor to cross on such a fool’s errand – but he is curious as to how the Frost Giants got into Asgard without him knowing, so he allows them to pass.

Of course this turns out to be a very bad idea. The confrontation quickly turns ugly and the Asgardians must fight their way past a kind of gigantic dog-like creature as well as a horde of Frost Giants, necessitating their rescue by Odin himself. He asks Laufey (Feore), the King of the Frost Giants if the incident could be forgotten but Laufey says a brusque no. War, it seems, is coming to Asgard.

Thor continues to be petulant about the whole thing and he and his dad get into a shouting match. Odin, pissed off beyond all measure, exiles Thor to Earth, stripping him of his powers and sending his enchanted hammer Mjolnir after him. When Thor learns some patience and gains the wisdom that is worthy of the hammer, he’ll be allowed to use it once again.

Meanwhile, on earth, a trio of scientists is studying some mysterious radiation surges in the New Mexico desert. Jane Foster (Portman) is extremely dedicated and passionate to her scientific muse. She is mentored by pragmatic Scandinavian Dr. Erik Selvig (Skarsgard) and aided by flighty intern Darcy Lewis (Dennings), who is a bit science challenged (she’s majoring in Political Science but this was the only internship she could get). They are out in the desert when a giant funnel cloud opens up. Of course Jane drives right into it – and smack into a Norse God which she strikes with her car.

As she begins to analyze her scientific data she theorizes that what she encountered was one end of a wormhole, through which the “really cut for a homeless guy,” as Darcy describes him, travelled. At first, he seems a bit demented. He is courtly to near ridiculous levels, freakishly strong, socially awkward by our standards and continually spouts out insane statements about Norse mythology, asserting that he is the God of Thunder and carries an enchanted hammer. Yeah, right.

In the meantime, the government agency SHIELD, led by the somewhat brusque agent Coulson (Gregg) has taken over, throwing a cordon around the hammerfall site and taking all of Jane’s research, including her journal. Thor, finding out where his hammer is, determines to go get it and prove himself worthy to Odin.

Up in Asgard, things have gone from bad to worse. Odin has fallen into a coma, Loki has proven to be treacherous and has taken the throne, threatening to annihilate the Frost Giants once and for all. Thor’s friends Fandral, Volstagg, Hogun and Sif come to Earth in a desperate attempt to retrieve Thor and set things to rights. Loki, discovering their treachery, sends down a Destroyer robot to end the lot of them and give him the throne of Asgard free and clear.

At first glance, Branagh is an unusual choice for directing a superhero comic adaptation. After all, he is best known for his Shakespeare adaptations and somewhat classical approach to film. However, he turns out to be the perfect choice; he immediately saw the epic quality in the story that even the Bard would have appreciated and Branagh wisely approaches the story in a matter befitting Shakespeare.

The result is a visually stunning, well-acted superhero movie painted on a cosmic canvas. Hemsworth, memorable as George Kirk in the Star Trek reboot, proves to be a solid and charismatic lead. He has all the makings of a big star, which bodes well for the Marvel Universe. His Thor, although petulant and impulsive is also easy-going and good-hearted. It’s nice to see a superhero mature onscreen in front of you as opposed to the darker superhero tales which seem to be more in vogue these days.

He gets some pretty good support, particularly from Hopkins who lends every inch of gravitas possible to Odin. Portman makes for a sweet romantic interest, in a PG kind of way. Skarsgard, one of the more reliable character actors around, is flinty and stolid as Dr. Selvig; skeptical and practical but also loyal to Jane, the daughter of an old friend. Dennings provides ample comic relief, which is surprising since in previous roles she didn’t strike me as the sort. I’m pleased to see Dennings show that kind of range – I’ve always liked her as an actress, so having that sort of versatility does make career longevity more of a possibility. Rene Russo also makes a rare and welcome appearance as Thor’s mother (and Odin’s wife) Frigga.

Hiddleston makes a fine Loki – tormented, mischievous and hateful. He is not the pure evil that sometimes he is portrayed in the comics; his origin also diverges from Marvel canon somewhat but in a good way I think. He proves to be a formidable opponent for Thor.

I also liked Elba as Heimdal, lending the kind of gravitas usually associated with James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman and Patrick Stewart. While we’re on the subject of the guardian of the rainbow bridge, the bridge makes one of the more arresting visuals of the movie. It is a combination of magic and science that is colorful (as you’d expect) and in an odd way, sensible. The city of Asgard itself is also gorgeous; certainly a CGI creation but looking almost like a miniature in many ways. It looks very much like a city of Gods.

As you can tell from the plot description, the story is a bit ponderous in places, with lots of characters showing up from the pages of Thor and Norse mythology in general. Fleeting glimpses are made of the Infinity Gauntlet, Hawkeye (of the Avengers) and Stan Lee. Keeping track of everything and everyone can be taxing at times, particularly for those who aren’t as well-versed in the comics.

Still, this is a very good start to the franchise; not quite to the level of Iron Man but surprisingly close. Now that the Marvel moviemaking machine is in full gear, it’s good to see that the quality standards are still high. Hopefully that’s something that will turn out to be as eternal as the Gods themselves.

REASONS TO GO: Asgard is beautifully realized. There’s an epic and Shakespearean quality to the story. Hemsworth acquits himself well as a leading man, with fine supporting performances by Portman, Hiddleston, Hopkins, Skarsgard, Elba and Dennings.

REASONS TO STAY: The story can be a bit confusing in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some science fiction/fantasy/comic book violence and a couple of scary monsters.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Marks the first appearance of Rene Russo in a feature film in six years.

HOME OR THEATER: Most definitely the big screen to maintain the epic quality of the movie.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Tropic Thunder