Cold Pursuit


”It’ll be a cold day in Hell when Liam Neeson does another action mov….oh, crap!”

 (2019) Action (SummitLiam Neeson, Laura Dern, Micheál Richardson, Michael Eklund, Bradley Stryker, Wesley MacInnes, Tom Bateman, Domenick Lombardozzi, Nicholas Holmes, Jim Shield, Aleks Paunovic, Glenn Ennis, Benjamin Hollingsworth, John Dornan, Emmy Rossum, Chris W. Cook, Venus Terzo, Dani Alvarado, Julia Jones, William Forsythe, Elizabeth Thai. Directed by Hans Petter Moland

 

They say revenge is a dish best served cold. Liam Neeson should know; he’s made a living the last decade or two playing aggrieved fathers/husbands/friends kicking the shit out of those who have done him wrong. So it’s kind of fitting that this, what he has said will be his final action role, is set in a Colorado ski resort.

Neeson plays Nels Coxman, the snowplow driver who has recently won a citizen of the year award for the town. However, his civic acclaim hides the fact that the tiny little hamlet has a problem with crime and violence. Nels isn’t immune from it; his son Kyle (Richardson) turns up dead of a heroin overdose. Nels and his wife (Dern) are devastated, but it smells fishy to Nels. His son ever used drugs and Nels would know if he had, right? So he goes on a one man crusade to find out the truth, even if he has to kill every lowlife drug dealer and criminal in town. And there are an awful lot of them.

Moland directed this remake of his own Swedish film In Order of Disappearance from five years ago, and infuses it with an almost satirical, quirky sense of humor – each bad guy that joins the Choir Invisible gets an onscreen tombstone with his colorful gang nickname emblazoned on it. The hits keep getting harder and bloodier and while Neeson thrives with this sort of thing, here he seems oddly low-key.

The big bad is played by Tom Bateman who overacts gleefully and shamelessly. Normally a role like a drug lord named Viking would be ripe for that sort of thing, but Bateman takes it over the line into parody which is no Bueno in a film like this. Action fans will enjoy some particularly grisly deaths, but film fans will A) wonder why Laura Dern is onscreen for all of 90 seconds, and B), how does a snowplow driver turn into a lethal assassin of paranoid gang members. Well, you don’t go to an action film for logic, right?

REASONS TO SEE: Has elements of satire to it.
REASONS TO AVOID: Lackluster action film whose comic jabs don’t always hit the mark.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, drug content, sexual references and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Richardson, who plays Neeson’s son, is his son in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Max Go, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/26//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Peppermint
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things

Robin Hood (2018)


(2018) Adventure (SummitTaron Egerton, Jamie Foxx, Ben Mendelsohn, Eve Hewson, Jamie Dornan, Tim Minchin, Paul Anderson, F. Murray Abraham, Ian Peck, Cornelius Booth, Kane Headley-Cummings, Scott Greenan, Lara Rossi, Kevin Griffiths, Catriona Temple, Bjorn Bengtsson, Nicholas Whitman, Nick Wittman, Yasen Atour, Josh Herdman, Amélina Limousin. Directed by Otto Bathurst

 

One of the things that I absolutely hate in a movie are anachronisms; you know, like having cheering throngs of medieval peasants singing Queen’s “We Will Rock You” at a joust, or a Victorian character shrugging “It is what it is” when painfully it certainly isn’t. So along comes this monstrosity and you know that I’m going to give it a wide berth, which is why it isn’t getting reviewed until two years after the fact.

Robin of Loxley (Egerton) is sent home from the Crusades in disgrace after refusing to murder a young Moorish boy in cold blood. The boy is executed anyway and his father Yahya (Foxx) stows away on the boat in gratitude, meaning to protect Robin who tried to protect his son. Robin finds the England he comes home not the same one he left. For one thing, the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham (Mendelsohn) has seized his home, explaining to his long-time girlfriend Marian (Hewson) that Robin had been killed in action two years prior. Now she has taken up with Will (Dornan), an Irish labor leader.

It becomes clear that the Sheriff is in bed with the greedy and rapacious Cardinal (Abraham) who conspires with the Sheriff to keep the peasants down and taxed into starvation. Robin, seeing the injustice in this, is determined to liberate the downtrodden by a little redistribution of wealth. No doubt the Republican party thinks him an evil socialist.

The production design is fairly complex and a mish mash of styles, but I found it intriguing. Bathurst, a veteran of such streaming binge-worthy shows as Peaky Blinders and Black Mirror knows his way around an action sequence. And that, ladies and germs, is about the extent of what the movie has going for it. Oh, and Jamie Foxx has the decency to look embarrassed that an actor of his caliber is involved in this mess.

Egerton has had at best a checkered career. He does okay in the Kingsmen films but then he pulls out groaners like this one. He’s flailing around like a drowning man and to his credit he at least tries; the script does him no favors and Bathurst’s curious directorial choices sink the ship for good. This was clearly meant to be a franchise for Lionsgate/Summit, but fortunately it doesn’t appear that it’s going to happen. The critical scores here are no accident folks; this is one to avoid.

REASONS TO SEE: Nice production design.
REASONS TO AVOID: Egerton’s performance is less than scintillating. 15 yards for unnecessary anachronisms.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of action and violence as well as some sexually suggestive situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first film to feature the character of Robin Hood was a silent film called Robin Hood and His Merry Men filmed in 1908, 110 years before this one.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/5/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 15% positive reviews, Metacritic: 32/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
The Other Lamb

Hunter Killer


Looks like Gerard Butler just read the script.

(2018) Action (SummitGerard Butler, Gary Oldman, Common, Michael Nyqvist, Linda Cardellini, Corey Johnson, Toby Stephens, Ryan McPartlin, Ethan Baird, Jacob Scipio, Dempsey Bovell, Henry Goodman, Adam James, Colin Stinton, Carter McIntyre, Shane Taylor, Kola Bokinni, Mikey Collins, David Gyasi, Will Attenborough, Kieron Bimpson, Sarah Middleton. Directed by Donovan Marsh

 

Sebastian the Crab famously sung “Under the sea/Darling, it’s better/Down where it’s wetter/Take it from me” in The Little Mermaid but clearly he hadn’t seen this submarine thriller. Gerard Butler has carved out a niche protecting Presidents for Lionsgate/Summit films (here it happens to be the Russian President) but in this case he’s doing so on board a submarine.

When a rogue Russian general takes the Russian prez hostage and prepares to initiate World War III (which hawkish Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (Oldman) just might oblige him. It is up to Captain Joe Glass (Butler) and the crew of the USS Arkansas, along with an elite rescue team headed by one Bill Beaman (Stephens) and an NSA operative (Cardellini) to mount a rescue operation before all hell breaks loose.

Sub movies can be deliciously tension-filled and full of geopolitical fun but this one is more of a standard action film. Try not to think about the preposterous plot points or the phoned-in acting performances – this is most definitely a paycheck movie, as evidenced by the nearly two years it sat on the shelf (in the interim Nyqvist, who played a Russian sub commander, passed away).

Perhaps the most grievous failure of the film is in its CGI which is utterly unconvincing. I get that not everyone can have a massive budget for their film but if you’re going to show submarines playing cat and mouse with each other, it should look at least vaguely realistic. The movie isn’t completely without merit, as there are moments where you’re likely to find yourself sucked in to the show, but for the most part you’ll be better served renting any of a couple of dozen sub movies that are much better.

REASONS TO SEE: Reasonably entertaining.
REASONS TO AVOID: The CGI is weak.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence as well as profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Donovan Marsh and Butler sailed for four days aboard the USS Houston in order to familiarize themselves with submarine life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On-Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Now, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 36% positive reviews: Metacritic: 43/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hunt for Red October
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Celebration

Kin


Some ordinary boys hide extraordinary secrets.

(2018) Science Fiction (SummitMyles Truitt, Jack Reynor, Dennis Quaid, Zoë Kravitz, James Franco, Carrie Coon, Ian Matthew, Gavin Fox, Stephane Garneau-Morten, Michael B. Jordan, Lily Gao, Lukas Penar, Carleigh Beverly, Milton Barnes, Michael Grisley, Khalid Klein, Sean Fowler, Carson Manning, Dave Lewis, Bree Wasylenko. Directed by Jonathan and Josh Baker

Some movies create their own genres by being something original. Others try to create their own genres by taking aspects of others and forcing it into a mold. This film is one of the latter.

Eli (Truitt) is the adopted son of construction boss Hal Solinski (Quaid) whose biological son Jimmy (Reynor) has just gotten out of jail. Hal is full of hope for the 14-year-old Eli (who is smart but introverted) but disappointed on the older Jimmy. However, it is Eli who discovers an alien weapon when scrounging around for scrap metal in an abandoned factory near his Detroit home.

Jimmy owes crime boss Taylor (Franco) a whole lot of money and in order to protect his dad and kid brother (whom he genuinely cares for) decides to steal the cash to pay Taylor. Things don’t go according to plan and soon Jimmy and Eli end up on the road (with Eli blissfully ignorant of the real reason why) being chased not only by vengeful gangsters but also by mysterious aliens who want their gun back.

This late summer sci-fi action crime road coming of age film actually has some things going for it. For one, the special effects – a combination of the digital and the practical – aren’t half-bad. For another, Franco makes for a truly hissable villain. A late-film cameo by A-list habitue Jordan is also a welcome sight.

But the movie is, oh, so predictable. The plot feels unnecessarily manufactured and none of the characters seem particularly personable. They’re all pretty one dimensional without much depth to them at all. The story feels like something you’ve already seen – and yeah, there haven’[t been a lot of alien weapon movies in the archives, but there have been a few.

There isn’t a lot here to recommend it but then again, there isn’t a lot here either to discourage you from seeing it. This is the kind of movie you watch and forget about ten minutes later. If that sounds like something you need, have at it. Otherwise, there are plenty of much better sci-fi action films out there to occupy your time.

REASONS TO SEE: Decent special effects.
REASONS TO AVOID: Predictable plot and generic characters.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence of both the gangster and sci-fi variety, some sexually suggestive material, profanity and adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Solinski home in the film was the same one used for the 2005 John Singleton film Four Brothers.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews: Metacritic: 35/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A.X.L.
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Crazy Rich Asians

The Hitman’s Bodyguard


Mace Windu’s got a brand new bag.

(2017) Action Comedy (Summit) Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Salma Hayek, Gary Oldman, Elodie Yung, Joaquim de Almeida, Tine Joustra, Richard E. Grant, Michael Gor, Kirsty Mitchell, Barry Atsma, Sam Hazeldine, Ori Pfeffer, Dijarn Campbell, Rod Hallett, Yuri Kolokolnikov, Nadia Konakchieva, Roy Hill, Georgie Glen, Noortje Herlaar, Donna Preston, Samantha Bolter. Directed by Patrick Hughes

 

The most important thing about a buddy action movie is that the chemistry between the buddies is good. Judging from the trailer, it appeared like that was a slam dunk for The Hitman’s Bodyguard – action veterans Samuel L. Jackson and Ryan Reynolds looked to be like the best buddy combo since Gibson and Glover. Then I saw the movie.

The premise is a simple one; down on his luck executive  bodyguard Michael Bryce (Reynolds) whose “triple A rated” agency took a tumble after a Japanese CEO he was hired to protect had his grey matter splattered all over a private jet window. Now his ex-girlfriend Amelia (Yung) who works for Interpol these days has a proposition for him – to escort a hired killer named Darius Kincaid (Jackson) from Manchester to the Hague to testify in the trial of an Eastern European dictator (Oldman) being tried for war crimes. Of course, neither the dictator nor elements within Interpol that he paid off want to see Darius make the court date and they mean to make sure he doesn’t.

There is an over-abundance of car chases which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you like car chases. Some of them are actually quite well done – in fact quite a number of stunts are really well-performed here. The problem is that many of the best ones are spoiled in the trailer. In fact, this is one of those occasions where the experience of a film is ruined by viewing the trailer. I can sympathize that those folks who make trailers have a difficult job – to get people excited about a movie without revealing too much about it. It’s a fine line to walk and not every trailer walks it successfully. This one doesn’t.

The all-important chemistry between Jackson and Reynolds isn’t nearly as strong consistently as the trailer would have you believe. Like any good buddy action combo, the relationship is strictly love-hate (emphasis on the hate to begin with) but there are times that the two feel awkward together. I think part of the problem lies with a studio decision to change what had been a pure action drama into an action comedy just weeks before shooting started. The original script had been on the Black List for best unproduced screenplays but I suppose the powers that be thought – with some justification – that a team-up between Reynolds and Jackson should be heavier on the comedy. Unfortunately for them, comedy can be a tricky thing to write and what looks good on paper may not translate to onscreen laughs.

The supporting performances are pretty solid. Oldman is suitably snarly as the generic Eastern European dictator and Grant has some nice scenes as one of Michael’s more recent clients but the show is nearly stolen by Hayek as Darius’ foul-mouthed wife. I would have liked to have seen a lot more of her and a lot less of Yung who is nondescript here.

2017 was a good year for action movies and this one had the potential to be right there among the best. Sadly, it squandered a lot of opportunities and ended up being merely adequate. Adjust your viewing plans accordingly, particularly since there are a plethora of great action movies out there that are far more worth your rental dollars.

REASONS TO GO: There are some great stunts in the film. Hayek was terrific in the film; it could have used more of her.
REASONS TO STAY: The chemistry between Jackson and Reynolds is inconsistent. Many of the best sequences were spoiled in the trailer.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence and profanity throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Criminal which also was Europe-set and featured Gary Oldman and Ryan Reynolds shared over 100 crew members in common.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/1/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hot Pursuit
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Kingsman: The Golden Circle

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

La La Land


Not the expression Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone want you to have when watching THEIR movie.

Not the expression Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone want you to have when watching THEIR movie.

(2016) Musical (Summit) Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock, Josh Pence, Tom Everett Scott, Meagen Fay, Valerie Rae Miller, Zoë Hall, Damon Gupton, Marius de Vries, Terry Walters, Callie Hernandez, Jessica Rothe, Sonoya Mizuno, Claudine Claudio, Aimée Conn, Thom Shelton, Olivia Hamilton. Directed by Damien Chazelle

 

Once upon a time the Hollywood landscape was ruled by two genres: Westerns and Musicals. Sure, there were thrillers, horror movies, comedies, dramas and even a little bit of sci-fi but those two aforementioned genres dominated both the box office and the release schedule. Both gradually fell out of favor and have been relegated to occasional appearances but have little relevance to executives eager to greenlight the latest potential tentpole franchise.

Damien Chazelle, who wowed critics with his Oscar-nominated indie hit Whiplash, now tackles the musical genre with a film that is both a modernist take on the musical and a reverent homage to the genre. Sebastian (Gosling) is a talented jazz pianist who yearns to open up a nightclub of his own, one where he can do things his way. He even has the perfect location for it – the site of a former legendary jazz club, now a tapas and salsa club (it’s heresy, I tell you). Mia (Stone) is an aspiring actress who like many of her peers works as a barista – in this case, on the Warner Brothers lot. She attends audition after audition always hopeful only to have those hopes dashed by an indifferent casting agent or a surfeit of competition.

The two meet under trying circumstances and at first take a bit of a dislike to each other, but they keep bumping into one another and soon they fall in love – it’s a Hollywood musical, after all. Eventually, Sebastian gets a break as a musician – he joins Keith’s (Legend) band which combines jazz with pop and finds success. However, on a constant grind of touring and recording makes him put his own dream on the back burner. Mia notes that this is exactly the kind of music that he hates and Sebastian argues that there comes time that one has to grow up and turn your back on your dreams for the sake of building a life. Sebastian has urged Mia to write a part for herself – it turns out she’s a talented writer – but when the one-woman show turns out disastrously and with Sebastian unable to attend because of a photo shoot, Mia turns her back on her dream and on Sebastian as well. That’s of course when things are about to change.

You are served notice that this is going to be a musical that would do Busby Berkeley proud with the very first scene, a lavish musical number set in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a freeway overpass. It’s preposterous and lavish but done with much love. It is both retro in feel and modern in execution and that theme continues throughout.

Stone and Gosling are two of the most attractive people in the world and they make a fascinating couple. Both of them are consummate actors and won Golden Globes for their performances here; whether or not that will translate to Oscars is anyone’s guess but they are almost certain to garner nominations at least. In fact, La La Land is considered the frontrunner for Best Picture and after winning the Globe for Best Musical or Comedy, it certainly has a good chance to duplicate that at the Academy Awards.

Chazelle gives us some really beautiful, transcendent moments – a dance sequence in the Griffith Park Observatory in which gravity loses its meaning, for example – and shows that he has a sense of style that marks him as a gifted director with enormous potential to become one of the greatest of his generation if he continues to make movies like this one.

I have mixed feelings about the various nods to classic musicals. On the one hand, I respect Chazelle’s knowledge of movie history and his clear love of the classics but it is this very thing that turns out to be a double edged sword. Certainly I love old musicals as most movie buffs do. The issue is that this is a very different era. Stars back in the golden age of movie musicals were also trained singers and dancers. They moved with a grace that is largely absent today. Dancers are trained not so much for classical dancing but for jazz and hip-hop. The moves and feel for those forms are very different. Even on Broadway, much of the choreography favors those forms. Dancing today is largely more athletic than it was back then. Those who made musicals great – Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Debby Reynolds, Cyd Charisse and Ginger Rogers to name a few – were of a different appeal, one that bespoke elegance and grace. Not that Ms. Stone or Mr. Gosling aren’t elegant or graceful, but again, it was a different era.

Another disappointment for me was the songs. Other than two – “City of Stars,” which was the representative of the movie at the Globes, and “Audition (Here’s to the Fools)” – not a single song will remain with you after the movie’s over. Those two will and for a long while too, particularly the latter with its aching, yearning and bittersweet tone. Stone’s delivery of that song reminded me a good deal of Anne Hathaway’s show-stopping performance in Les Miserables – which not uncoincidentally won Hathaway an Oscar. Other than the aforementioned the songs feel like generic showtunes without any sort of hook; soft, mushy songs that kill time before one of the two really good songs are presented.

I have to say that I admired the movie more than I liked it. Many of my friends and fellow movie buffs have put this movie at the top of their best movies of the year lists, or at least very near it. I can’t say that I don’t understand their love for this film. It is one of the best musicals to come along the pike this century and may eventually be considered one of the all-time classics and I might even by that time feel that kind of acclaim justified – just not now. When you hold this up to the light next to actual all-time classics, it’s just plain to see that there’s no comparison. This is a very good musical and a very good film, but a great one? I’m really not sold on that.

REASONS TO GO: Chazelle has a good visual sense. The movie is innovative and different. The performances by Gosling, Stone and Legend are fine. The movie has a throwback feel.
REASONS TO STAY: It doesn’t really hold up next to classic musicals. The songs with a couple of exceptions have a Broadway sound to them.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gosling spent two hours a day, seven days a week learning the piano parts that he played live without CGI or hand doubles. His first scene in which he plays piano was completed in a single take. John Legend, a classically trained pianist (who himself learned to play guitar for the movie) proclaimed himself jealous.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Moulin Rouge
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Catch 22: based on the unwritten story by seanie sugrue

Hacksaw Ridge


War is a dirty business.

War is a dirty business.

(2016) True War Drama (Summit) Andrew Garfield, Hugo Weaving, Teresa Palmer, Vince Vaughn, Rachel Griffiths, Sam Worthington, Richard Roxburgh, Jacob Warner, Firass Dirani, Luke Pegler, Nico Cortez, Goran D. Kleut, Dennis Kreusler, Nathaniel Buzolic, Ben Mingay, Michael Sheasby, Luke Bracey, Harry Greenwood, Damien Thomlinson, Ben O’Toole. Directed by Mel Gibson

 

It is said that there are no atheists in foxholes, but at the same time there really isn’t a whole lot of room for religion in war either. When one is called upon to kill for king and country (or queen and country as the case may be) one must set aside some of the basic commandments of most religions, as well as the moral compass of society. We generally frown upon killing but wartime gives those who take human life a bit of a pass, although not without consequence. It can take a great deal of courage to set aside one’s morals for the sake of one’s country but it can take a great deal more not to.

Desmond Doss (Garfield) is just an ordinary country boy from the hill country of Virginia back in 1944. He has a deep faith and participates at his Seventh-Day Adventist Church. His father Thomas (Weaving) came back from the Great War traumatized and sometimes violent with his family, particularly with his mother Bertha (Griffiths) whom he loves with a fierce devotion. He rough houses with his brother Hal (Buzolic) – sometimes a little too rough – and pines after the sweet nurse Dorothy Schutte (Palmer) whom he knew from the moment he saw her that he was going to marry her. Well, maybe one day soon.

But there’s a war going on and Desmond doesn’t feel right staying at home while others fight and die for his freedom. He knows he needs to go out there and defend his country, but there’s one problem – his religious beliefs prevent him from killing anyone. In fact, Desmond refuses to even touch a gun. He takes this quite seriously; in fact, he has become a vegetarian (a rarity in that era) because of his beliefs. He therefore decides to enlist in the U.S. Army as a Medic.

The trouble is that somewhere along the line the lines got crossed between Desmond and the military. He is sent for combat training, and combined with his slight frame and his refusal to even defend himself with violence puzzles Sgt. Howell (Vaughn) who is training him, as well as Captain Glover (Worthington), his commanding officer. It also infuriates his fellow soldiers who see it as cowardice and beat him up something fierce.

At last he is given a direct order to shoot a gun, a command he refuses. He is summarily put in the stockade, on his wedding day to make matters worse. He will go up for court martial, which carries with it prison time at Leavenworth. All the boy wants to do is serve his country, and eventually with the help from an unexpected source, he is allowed to do that and for his efforts is shipped off to Okinawa where he will finally get a chance to do exactly what he intended to; to save lives. In the process he will win the highest award our country bestows upon its citizens; the Medal of Honor.

Gibson is not a director who shirks at showing the uglier side of humanity. We see limbs blown off of soldiers, rats gnawing on fresh meat on the battlefield, innards sliding out of horrendous wounds, blood soaking everywhere, bodies blown to bits and the most brutal and savage hand-to-hand combat you’re likely to see. This isn’t for the faint of heart.

Yet at the center of the film is a heart filled with grace. Say what you want about Desmond Doss; he is a man of his word and watching what he did in real life (from most of the sources I’ve read Gibson has stuck pretty close to what Doss really did – even leaving out some feats because he felt that nobody would believe it really happened) is truly inspiring. Heroes wear uniforms, it’s true, but they don’t always beat up the bad guys.

Garfield, who took a lot of criticism for his portrayal of Peter Parker in the Amazing Spider-Man films, has been receiving some end-of-the-year awards attention. His portrayal of Doss is simple and to-the-point. There isn’t a lot of subtlety here and Gibson sometimes goes a little bit over-the-top as when he shows Doss being lowered off the cliff face of Hacksaw Ridge on Okinawa as almost an ascension to heaven. Garfield didn’t need that kind of cinematic excess to make the point for Gibson.

Although Vaughn is the only American in the cast (nearly everyone here is Australian with Garfield and a couple of others who are Brits) the film captures the tones and rhythms of American speech from the era nicely. Gibson also makes the pastoral setting of Lynchburg extremely appealing, as anyone who has visited the town can tell you (yes, we’ve made our pilgrimage to the Jack Daniels distillery – deal with it).

In fact, that setting and pace of life actually slows the film down a bit at the beginning. It really isn’t until the movie gets to Okinawa that things really start to shine here and Gibson shows why he is a very talented man behind the camera. The war scenes are quite simply the best I’ve seen since Saving Private Ryan. It certainly will stay in your memory for quite a while.

Mel Gibson has had a checkered career to say the least. Once one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, he showed every indication that he was going to be one of Hollywood’s biggest directors. Legal issues and some fairly unsavory comments on his part derailed both his acting and directing plans; in fact, this is his first stab at directing in a decade. That Summit has kept quiet his participation, not mentioning by name Gibson’s involvement is a testament to how much of a pariah he became in the industry. One wonders if there isn’t a bit of cinematic self-flagellation going on here. Armchair psychology aside, this is Gibson’s return to form and hopefully he’ll get some opportunities to continue to direct some films that showcase his talents. He certainly has plenty of it to showcase.

REASONS TO GO: A criminally little-known and inspiring story. It might be the best war film since Saving Private Ryan. This is a return to form for Gibson.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is a little bit slow in the first third. Some of the images here might be too much for the overly-sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: Prolonged sequences of graphic war brutality including grisly images and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Doss was the second registered conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor – the first was Sgt. Alvin York in World War I. However, while York carried a weapon into war, Doss did not.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/1/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flags of Our Fathers
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Best and Most Beautiful Things

Deepwater Horizon


The moment when you realize that your crazy uncle is coming to Thanksgiving dinner.

The moment when you realize that your crazy uncle is coming to Thanksgiving dinner.

(2016) True Life Drama (Summit) Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, Gina Rodriguez, John Malkovich, Kate Hudson, Ethan Suplee, Dylan O’Brien, Joe Chrest, James Dumont, J.D. Evermore, Douglas M. Griffin, Brad Leland, Jason Pine, Jason Kirkpatrick, Dave Maldonado, Robert Walker Branchaud, Jonathan Angel, Jeremy Sande, Juston Street, Stella Allen. Directed by Peter Berg

 

On April 20, 2010 the Deepwater Horizon semi-submersible mobile offshore drilling unit exploded, paving the way for one of the worst ecological disasters in history. Most of us know about the aftermath and the damage to the Gulf Coast, to the fishing industry and to wildlife. But what of those who were on the rig at the time?

Mike Williams (Wahlberg), an oil rig electronics technician, is getting ready to leave his wife (Hudson) and daughter (Allen) to go and spend 21 days on the oil rig Deepwater Horizon. He reports to Jimmy “Mr. Jimmy” Harrell (Russell), a grizzled non-nonsense kind of guy who depends on his electronics technician to keep the various systems running on the rig, which is no easy task; many of the systems are outdated and are badly in need of overhauling, systems including waste disposal (i.e. the toilets) all the way up to telecommunications and even the computers. Although Williams grouses, he keeps the rig going and running as efficiently as possible.

But British Petroleum, who is leasing the oil rig, wants their exploratory well finished and the Deepwater Horizon is already five weeks behind schedule. BP representative Vidrine (Malkovich) is putting pressure on Harrell and Jason Anderson (Suplee), the control room supervisor, to finish running the various safety checks – Harrell is a stickler for safety – that he feels are redundant and slowing down the operations that he is tasked to complete.

Both Harrell and Williams are concerned that a concrete plug hasn’t been installed and those who were supposed to install it have left the rig at Vidrine’s insistence. That Vidrine seems more concerned with profit rather than safety gets under Harrell’s skin, but Vidrine seems perfectly content to let Harrell run the tests he wants to run to make sure that the drill is secure. Harrell goes to take a shower and all hell breaks loose.

Massive blow-back in the line leads to a series of explosions on the rig, crippling it. Fire rages everywhere and an abandon ship order is issued. Navigator Andrea Fleytas (Rodriguez) desperately tries to keep the floating rig in place so as not to rupture the pipe and release the petroleum into the Gulf but with the power failing and her boss, anxious to protect his ass, waiting for orders rather than disconnecting the pipe from the crippled rig, the stage is set for a disaster that will continue to have repercussions on the Gulf Coast for decades to come.

Eleven people died aboard the Deepwater Horizon and there are some concerns that a movie like this will exploit their memories. There are also those who think that Leftie Hollywood will use the movie as a springboard to jump on the offshore oil drilling business in general, but I think both concerns should be allayed. The movie is not about the oil spill (it is barely mentioned in the film) but about the heroism of those aboard who took care of each other and performed extraordinary deeds of courage in the face of terrifying events. People running into infernos to rescue injured comrades, climbing aboard cranes swinging like pendulums to save those awaiting rescue – it is hard not to take great faith in human nature because the movie illustrates the higher aspect of people rather than their baser natures.

Sure, Vidrine is something of a villain here but not out of malice; he’s just trying to do his job and while he isn’t well-liked by the crew of the Deepwater Horizon, he also agrees to safety checks and acts on the information that those tests give him. While the Justice Department would later rule that BP acted recklessly, the movie doesn’t show a lot of that.

Russell and Wahlberg make an effective team. It doesn’t seem that long ago to me that the Mike Williams role would have gone to Russell – has it really been 35 years since Escape from New York? Russell’s performance recalls his work in Tombstone as Wyatt Earp; same kind of gravelly intensity here. As for Wahlberg, roles like Mike Williams are tailor-made for him. He has settled into a niche which suits him perfectly; if you look at most of his roles over the last five years they are very similar in that we’re talking about ordinary family men placed in extraordinary situations that give them an opportunity to do heroic deeds. This won’t be remembered as Wahlberg’s finest hour, but it is certainly right in his wheelhouse.

The Deepwater Horizon set is absolutely amazing. The production designers recreated it at 85% of scale and it may be the largest set ever built for a single film (although the Egyptian set for Intolerance may have given this a run for its money but the special effects crew does some amazing work here. It’s hard to believe the actors didn’t get burned on a regular basis.

The ending features a tribute to the survivors as well as those who didn’t and while I think that one is necessary, there’s a bit of mawkishness to those final scenes that precede it that was a bit off-putting to me. Still, it is clear that the movie was made respectfully and as far as entertainment value goes it is a solid work in that sense. However, I’m not sure how to feel about being entertained by a film depicting real events in which eleven people lost their lives. I suppose it’s no worse than being entertained by a film about a war in which millions lost their lives, or by Titanic in which a thousand people lost their lives – but it may be that the events of April 20, 2010 may be too fresh in the minds of the friends and families of the victims for this to be the right time to release this movie.

REASONS TO GO: The set is absolutely amazing. The film concentrates on the heroes aboard the doomed rig rather than at pointing fingers at those that doomed it.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmakers don’t really look at the repercussions of the disaster with any depth. It’s a little too manipulative at the end.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is disturbing disaster imagery and sequences of violence, as well as some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first time Kate Hudson has appeared in a film with her stepfather Kurt Russell; they only share one scene together however.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/5/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Perfect Storm
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Birth of a Nation (2016)

Mechanic: Resurrection


Jason Statham raises stubble to an art form.

Jason Statham raises stubble to an art form.

(2016) Action (Summit) Jason Statham, Jessica Alba, Tommy Lee Jones, Sam Hazeldine, Michelle Yeoh, John Cenatiempo, Toby Eddington, Femi Elufowoju Jr., Anteo Quintavalle, Rhatha Phongam, Bonnie Zellerbach, Francis Tonkala Tamouya, Tais Rodrigues Dias, Allan Poppleton, Soji Ikai, Vithaya Pansringam, Lynnette Emond. Directed by Dennis Gansel

 

Jason Statham is my favorite action hero at the moment. He’s smart, he’s tough and he’s talented. He has his own unique voice and has the chops to hang with the legendary action stars of the 80s and 90s; Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Willis, van Damme…Statham if nothing else can proudly put his name in that pantheon, even if most of the films he makes in the genre are more of the B variety.

So he’s back, now in his 50s, in a sequel to his 2011 hit. Arthur Bishop (Statham) is a world class assassin who specializes in making his hits look like accidents but after faking his own death has been living under the radar in Brazil. However, in this day and age nobody can slip notice for long and he is found by Crain (Hazeldine), an old “friend” of his who needs his special talents. In order to obtain them, Crain needs to have some leverage on his old buddy and what better way than to set him up to fall in love with the altruistic and somewhat naïve Gina (Alba) who happens to fall into his radar.

He takes refuge at the Thai resort run by his friend Mei (Yeoh) but Crain finds him there and kidnaps Gina. Now Bishop must perform three nearly impossible assassinations of three very dangerous, evil gentlemen in a short amount of time or Gina is going to get dead, which Bishop is anxious to prevent. He knows that Crain will likely kill them both anyway so he needs to have a plan. Here’s your word of wisdom for the day; never force a world class assassin to work for you unless you intend to die yourself.

The film this is a sequel to was itself a remake of a 1972 Charles Bronson flick which was darker in tone than this. There is more of a 90s action vibe, a cross between the Mission: Impossible series and the action films of Schwarzenegger. One of my issues of the 2011 film was that Bishop was almost too good; there was never a sense that he was in any jeopardy. They’ve rectified that here, but there are other issues unfortunately.

The main one is that it doesn’t really add anything to the franchise. Bishop was, as Statham put it, a “thinking man’s killer” who has the ability to plan three or four steps ahead and improvising on the fly when he needs to. It’s mostly the latter here and we lose some of the more thoughtful aspects of Bishop which is what made him unique. Worse though, this is pretty much action film making 101; it is interchangeable with all sorts of recent action films (many of which were made for the Lionsgate/Summit banner) and we can pretty much predict what happens next – and it does.

Statham is the main reason to see this. He has settled into being one of the premiere action heroes of the 21st century and while he could use a shave pretty much throughout the movie, he continues to be one of the most impressive hand-to-hand fighters in action films ever. He’s capable of being over-the-top in the Crank films or more subtle as he is here. The man can actually act, as he showed in his Guy Ritchie films as well as The Bank Job, still to date his best performance.

The movie is at its best when the dialogue stops i.e. the action and stunt sequences. The trailer hinted at a stunt in which Statham climbs up the side of a glass building and sets a charge in the glass bottom of a pool hanging over the side, waving goodbye to the victim as the glass shatters and he plummets to his doom below. It is as good a sequence as you’ll find in any action movie this year and fortunately, the trailer omits some of the best parts of the sequence. There are others that are also in the elite class as far as stunt and fight sequences in 2016 are concerned.

But the movie’s main sin is that it simply isn’t interesting. The stunt sequences are great but the romance between Gina and Bishop is not and Yeoh, one of the greatest action heroines ever is held to a largely lifeless cameo. If you’re going to go to the trouble of casting someone the caliber of Michelle Yeoh, the least you can do is give her something to do. It’s a shame that she never got Hollywood’s interest in her prime; she’s not only an extraordinary action star but an extraordinary actress as well, as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon proved and its sequel reiterated earlier this year.

Jones fares better as a jocular arms dealer but he really is the only one who looks like he’s having a good time here. Unfortunately, the audience for the most part will side with the rest of the cast and not have much of a good time either. This is a blah entry into what could have been an interesting action franchise.

REASONS TO GO: There are some really nifty action sequences and stunts. Statham has become a dependable lead actor.
REASONS TO STAY: Overall, the film is predictable and dull. They took an interesting character and converted him into just another action figure.
FAMILY VALUES:  All sorts of violence and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the American film debut of Gansel, who has directed a number of films in his native Germany.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/25/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: John Wick
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Kubo and the Two Strings