Reviews


“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” Movie Review


Im-Thinking-of-Ending-Things

     If you’re already familiar with writer/director Charlie Kaufman’s work, than the bizarre nature and melancholy atmosphere of his latest effort, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” certainly won’t surprise you, but is likely to leave those who stick around until the end baffled at some level.  And this is the sort of thing the three time Academy Award nominee and Original Screenplay winner for 2004’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is known for.  The guy doesn’t think the way an average person would, and thus the stories that come out his mind are told in a way far from the norm.  

     For those who thought Quentin Tarantino may have been over indulgent in the 20 minute opening scene in 2015’s “The Hateful Eight”, which sees the three lead characters converse over a letter written to one of them by Abraham Lincoln while enduring a long snowy stagecoach ride, you may come away from “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” believing Tarantino’s scene suffered from over editing. Kaufman opens his film with a young woman (Jessie Buckley) and her boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons) driving to his parent’s farm, located in a secluded rural section of Oklahoma.  All the while, her inner monologue tells us she is hesitant about the trip, if for no other reason she doesn’t see her relationship with Jake as permanent.  In fact, as the film’s title suggests, she wants to end things sooner rather  than later.

     And so we accompany them.  Getting bits and pieces of her disdain for the trip she has agreed to take, their first together, and the qualities Jake clearly lacks as she pictures her ideal mate.  There are times where the silence is deafening, even forcing Jake to suggest listening to the radio at one point, but soon conversations involving musical theatre and movies come into play, mostly as a means for Lucy, as we come to know her, to suggest his personality has been primarily shaped by the media he has consumed during his life.  Most of this sequence is shot, interestingly, from the outside of the car, so we always see the icy surroundings and the windshield wipers pushing the snow and rain away with the characters seemingly out of focus just beyond the windshield.  And as the scene continues to a point where you wonder if this is meant to be depicted in real time, we begin to ask the question, what is Kaufman doing here?

     If all of this isn’t strange enough, once they arrive at the farm and see Jake’s mother waving to them from the upstairs window, he decides to instead, in the middle of a snow storm, give Lucy a tour of the barn, rather than go inside.  It’s there where he shares a particularly disturbing story about the pigs they once had, but there’s no connection to what’s happened so far that would explain why the story is being shared.  Is Kaufman ratcheting up Jake’s creepy vibe on purpose? The entire thing makes you feel as though Kaufman is transitioning to the horror genre, especially given the lengthy set up and the notion of Lucy’s desire to break up.  All the while, we know Jake suspects her intention as well.

     This doesn’t change when they finally make it inside the house.  Jake’s parents, played by Toni Collette and David Thewlis, take their time coming down stairs, and when they do, it is clear their son prefers his mother over his father.  Eventually, they sit down to a dinner neither of them really touch, but the parents do show an interest in learning about Lucy, which she is obliged to participate in and gladly shows the giddy duo some of her artwork by way of her smart phone.  And as expected at this point, the parents are genuinely strange and remain off kilter during the entire dinner scene with a clearly embarrassed Jake frequently shutting down both of them as they giggle their way through these exchanges with Lucy.

     As they move deeper into the evening, you again begin to wonder if perhaps Kaufman is intending a homage to Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”, as his camera floats within the hallways, following Lucy as danger seems to lurk beyond the doors she is about to enter.  There’s even a basement whose entrance is covered in scratches and strange markings that Jake tells her is a place he prefers not to go.  But the set up here is much more than the plot of some low rent horror premise.  Remember whose film this is.

     Kaufman’s screenplay is based on the book by Iain Reid, which proves the perfect project for a film maker whose previous work revels in the surreal.  And while the regular cut aways to an older janitor working in a high school at night may seem impossible to connect to the primary storyline, a step way back from the typical expectations of a film like this may lead you directly where Kaufman intended.  As the third act moves even further into a dream world and slowly pulls away from reality, you begin to think about the possibility that maybe none of this is actually happening the way it was initially presented.  Is this Jake looking back on his life with the regret of someone who couldn’t get it together, and instead chose to wall off everyone close to him in order to avoid further pain?  Has Kaufman once again delved into the human psyche in a way most filmmakers are incapable of?  GRADE: B+

“Mulan” (2020) Movie Review


Mulan-2020-Preview-Images-Poster

     Disney continues the ongoing trend of remaking their classic animated films into mega budgeted live action spectaculars with director Niki Caro’s “Mulan”, a film departing from the photorealistic motion capture techniques utilized in John Favreau’s “The Jungle Book” (2016) and “The Lion King” (2019) in favor of live actors filmed at actual locations.  And with that comes a certain breath of fresh air, as these settings instantly bring the audience back to an age of epic filmmaking where directors staged complex action sequences outside of studio confines and within the actual places these scenes intend to depict. “Mulan” is the kind of film where its reported $200 million production budget not only shows in what was completed in post production, but also during its principle photography as well.

     Working from a script written by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin, and Lauren Hynek, Caro infuses every frame of her film with a level of creativity and effort often not seen in event films that are created solely for four quadrant mainstream consumption.  Here, Caro embraces the art of filmmaking as her camera glides toward and around her subjects in the same graceful manner displayed by the many talented martial artists in the cast.  And never are any of these movements repeated.  Every scene utilizes a different array of tracking shots, crane shots, and aerial photography that gives an often dizzying view of the detailed surroundings and massive settings where much of the story takes place.

     If only the cast wasn’t subdued by a series of poorly written characters and several bland performances, perhaps Caro would’ve had something truly special.  But as is, “Mulan” plays more like an obviously stripped down version of  “Game of Thrones” style battle sequences, crossed with significantly muted martial arts mayhem and Chinese lore of films like Jet Li’s “Hero” (2003) and the roof hopping wire work of And Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000).  “Mulan” even features many of the notable martial actors from the films it is no doubt attempting to emulate, including Jet Li, Donnie Yen, and Jason Scott Lee - but the constraints of Disney’s brand hold this back from being anything comparable.  Most of the killings in battle take place off screen, and the ones we do see are bloodless and devoid of anything overly violent.

     When a ruthless army, led by a stock villain called Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), threatens the Emperor (Jet Li), the Chinese Imperial Army goes to nearby cities and orders each family to provide one male to serve in an effort to bolster their numbers against an enemy they know will not be easily defeated.  When a former and well known soldier, Zhou (Tzi Ma), is asked who in his family will volunteer, he is forced to offer himself as he and his wife only have two daughters and no sons.  And with his left leg badly disabled, the odds of him still being able to perform the required duties seem in doubt. 

     Enter Mulan (Yifei Liu), Zhou’s oldest daughter and one who has proven quite capable, but is not allowed to serve in the army because of her gender.  In order to save her father from certain doom, she sneaks away with his sword and armor, taking his place as their family’s volunteer, while portraying herself as a man, rather than a woman.  Now of course, we as the audience are in on this, so it’s instantly difficult to believe those in charge of her, as well as her peers are going to buy the charade, but Caro has fun with it anyway.  Particularly with the running joke of her taking watch each night in order to avoid having to shower, which sees many of her bunk mates complaining about the foul odor she soon develops.

     Even her commander, Tung (Donnie Yen), is duped into believing this obviously feminine looking soldier is indeed a male, as is a small band of buddies who accompany her in various scenes depicting martial arts and weapons training, as well as feats of strength and endurance.  All of which Mulan excels at and often bests her male counterparts, something her superiors notice and laud her for.  It would’ve been nice to have written some of these guys lines that could’ve made them more than just reactive to what Mulan does from scene to scene.  It’s as if they are there as place holders for later when it will likely become necessary for her to save them, or something.  Otherwise, there wouldn’t be a reason to keep them around right?

     And it is during the initial battle between the Imperial Army and Bori Khan’s goons that Mulan discovers her “Chi” and decides to unveil her true self.  Suddenly, what was once a dirty and grimy battle worn soldier, becomes a clean and shiny Disney Princess, complete with make up, lip stick, and professionally done hair!  She swoops in on her horse and dispatches the enemy with ease, while saving many of those aforementioned battle buddies from near death.  Now there is a bit of the supernatural in play here, particularly given her encounter with a mysterious goddess, Xianniang (Li Gong), whose own abilities include morphing into a bird for easier travel between scenes.  So some of this is meant to be fantastical and all of it is intended to be a pure family experience, so the princess transformation has to be expected.

     But the character herself is played a bit too reserved, and because of the secret she is hiding during the majority of the picture, Liu is never given the kind of moments with her co-stars where anything other than the serious and disciplined routine is required.  We’ll never really know how any of these characters feel about each other because they don’t have the kind of exchanges where emotion or personality comes into play.  There’s even a surprisingly low amount of comic relief.  And with everything leading to a showdown between Mulan and Bori Khan with the fate of the Emperor hanging in the balance, the result is always obvious, regardless of whether or not you’ve seen the 1998 animated version.  All of which means “Mulan” is carried primarily by its endlessly striking visual spectacle, but remains devoid of an emotional core that could very well have turned the film into an instant classic.  GRADE: C+

“Tenet” Movie Review


Robert-Pattinson-and-John-David-Washington-in-Tenet

     Since arriving with his breakthrough film “Memento” (2000), Christopher Nolan has established himself as one of the preeminent filmmakers of his generation, having built an impressive resume of spellbinding event films spanning everything from pulse pounding historical epics to mind bending action thrillers. The best in this business are typically identifiable by trademarks they often employ in each of their films in order to tell a story and Nolan is no exception.  The director, who pens the original screenplays that build the foundation for these visual spectaculars, utilizes the element of time as a key method of moving the story forward, or backwards, as was the case in “Memento” and has now come full circle with “Tenet”.

     “Tenet” may well be Nolan’s deepest dive yet into how time affects the way a story unfolds on screen.  And that’s saying something given the way time is presented in films such as “Inception” (one minute in real life is a week in a dream.), “Interstellar” (a few minutes on a planet is twenty years for those parked just outside its atmosphere.), or “Dunkirk” (events are depicted as they take place over a day, week, and month.).  Here, Nolan introduces a concept of which a supporting character tells us we are not meant to understand, but rather only feel.  You’ll exit the theater likely holding on to that since there never is a cohesive explanation given for the logic defying visuals you will have just witnessed.  In “The Matrix”, it was as simple as we are projections of ourselves in a computer simulated construct, and thus our minds can allow us to perform actions not possible in the real world.  “Tenet” offers no such simplicity.

     The film opens with a thunderous action sequence as terrorists suddenly arrive at a packed concert hall in Kiev, Ukraine with nefarious intentions.  Outside, SWAT team members ready themselves to enter the building and presumably save lives.  One of them is a character we will only know as the Protagonist, played by John David Washington (“Blackkklansman”), as we are shown he and his immediate team are likely not a part of the larger group when the local police department’s patch is distributed and affixed to their gear just before they embark on their mission.  What is that mission?  Well, it’s clearly not the same as the others entering the fray.  They seem to avoid the terrorists in the main room and go straight to one of the upper level boxes in order to retrieve a specific person.  Maybe they are CIA? Perhaps there is an important agency asset who needs extraction?  

     It’s not explained, but the result leads to the Protagonist being captured and tortured.  And when he follows protocol by taking a poison pill, he drifts off believing his duty is done.  But then he awakens, having been treated medically and on a large boat somewhere in the world.  A man tells him he has passed a test many do not, and is now on a new team with a new directive he doesn’t choose to explain. Instead offering the word Tenet for him to follow up on.

     Essentially, a coalition of government agencies from around the world have discovered a technology that is being deployed in the future and can be transported to the past.  People and objects can experience actions in reverse, thus giving someone with ill intentions to ability to change the course of history and undo a series of actions crucial to a specific plan or goal.  That’s simplifying things substantially, and you may not come away with an explanation like this after viewing the film.  But let it marinate a bit, and a lot of what’s presented in Nolan’s standard loud and tightly edited style will begin to come into focus.

     The man in possession of this dangerous technology both in the present and the future is a foreign arms dealer named Andrei (Kenneth Branagh), who has a plan in motion to end the world.  The Protagonist learns Andrei’s wife, Kat (Elizabith Debicki), is a victim of his constant abuse and utilizes her cooperation to get closer to the Russian’s operation.  Working with another agent, Neill (Robert Pattinson), the duo moves through various locales in an attempt to peel away the various layers of Andrei’s organization and determine what exactly he’s trying to do.  It’s never actually clear to the audience, but we assume it’s bad.

     All of this proves to be a creative canvas for Nolan to unspool several eye popping action sequences, each of which seems determined to outdo the last.  The best of them are presented at different stages of the film, where we believe we understand what the intentions of the characters are, only to find out there are other characters unseen in the exact same sequence, but operating in a different realm of time.  I know, it doesn’t make sense, but like “Inception”, Nolan is playing with one of the most original movie ideas we’ve seen in years.  So you have to figure this one is going to be a doozy.  

     As you would expect for a film that is said to have cost north of $200 million, the technical aspects of “Tenet” are exceptional.  And the seamlessly rendered action sequences are heightened greatly by Ludwig Goransson’s pounding score that is often loud enough to drown out the dialogue, which is yet another Nolan hallmark.  The entire experience is the kind of ride you want to see on the big screen, as the images courtesy of cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (“Dunkirk”, “Interstellar”) have never looked better in a film where the visual punch is clearly its most important aspect.  “Tenet” is that proverbial mystery box, likely designed through Nolan’s extensive imagination to be the kind of film we as filmgoers will endlessly debate and dissect for years to come.  GRADE: A

“Project Power” Movie Review


project-power-netflix-movie

     Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman have come a long way since their debut film, 2010’s “Catfish”, which engrossed the nation with its real life look at the potential pitfalls of falling in love with someone online who you’ve yet to meet in person.  The filmmaking duo would go on to take the helm of the “Paranormal Activity” franchise, directing both the third and fourth installments and showing plenty of promise in their ability to create something that feels new, even when the material is anything but.  Perhaps that’s what led them to their latest film, “Project Power”, a Netflix offering that falls directly in line with the streamer’s recent pattern of original superhero releases likely designed to steal away some of the Marvel audience, who have been waiting impatiently on the sidelines with theaters closed and no other way to follow the exploits of their favorite characters.  

     Unfortunately, “Project Power”, even while armed with a fairly novel concept, never manages to stray from the standard comic book film formula and suffers greatly for it.  Just when you think the screenwriter, Mattson Tomlin, has created something destined to break the mold, a painfully standard third act unravels with minimal surprise and predictable character arcs that are likely to leave you unsatisfied when the credits roll.  

     Stop me when you’ve heard this one before.  Three unlikely heroes team up to take down an evil plot.  They endure the hardship of separate paths leading them to the inevitable showdown, which is nothing more than some nefarious lair where the ringleader and obligatory henchman are conducting experiments in the name of some half baked plan to rule the world.  It’s exactly the same thing the “Austin Powers” films were making fun of, but we still see the same formula in these films anyway.  If only the filmmakers could have manufactured a viable twist that could’ve turned upside down everything we thought about the story before that point.  But it never comes.  In fact, there isn’t really anything impactful that you haven’t already seen before.

     The premise here follows a glowing pill being peddled by dealers within the dark underbelly of New Orleans.  It is said users who ingest the substance will experience a superpower for five minutes, which will vary from person to person, or as a matter of plot convenience.  Much of this is depicted in a similar fashion to the different abilities of the characters in the “X-Men” films, but with less or no development.  Many times, the people in “Project Power” who take the drug are in place as an adversary designed as a gate that gets the main characters closer to the people responsible.  So we see one low life drug dealer take the pill and suddenly burst into flames in much the same way as a more famous “Fantastic Four” character would, allowing for a short lived fight sequence that seems to function for the audience’s entertainment and nothing more.

     The story centers around Robin (Dominique Fishback), a low level dealer who is doing so in order to support her mother who suffers from diabetes and has no health insurance.  Yes, the message of how people who live within marginalized communities have been dealt a raw deal in life comes through loud and clear, though only their desperation to survive is explored with no real solutions offered.  Robin works regularly with Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a plain clothes New Orleans Police Officer who is investigating the origins of the pill, while also looking to acquire the drug for himself in order to level the playing field with the criminals on the street.  His, and many of the other characters “super power” as it were, happens to be invincibility to bullets, which is comical given the fact we just saw another Netflix film, “The Old Guard”, which featured super heroes with the exact same power, thus meaning both films feature crucial plot driving scenes where bullet wounds heal instantly, pushing the bullets right out of their bodies.

     Robin and Frank eventually cross paths with Art (Jamie Foxx), an ex-military type who has personal reasons for locating the source of the pill and stopping its manufacturing for good.  But everything that happens has the trio on a collision course to that evil lair we tend to end up at in films like this, where the story devolves into a video game of sorts, as our protagonists are faced with various levels of bad guys whose super powers are all different when they’ve taken the pill. Again, mostly for plot convenience.  All of the doors in the facility are locked? No worries, one of the henchman takes the pill, and his power is super strength, allowing him to push through massive doors made of solid steal.  Problem solved!

     None of it is overly inventive and the conclusion feels derivative of so much that has been done before.  Art’s final stand in particular instantly conjures images of “Dark Phoenix”, making the film’s ending seem lazy, as if the filmmakers were proceeding on a great idea, but couldn’t nail the landing.  Don’t get me wrong, “Project Power” is a serviceable entertainment, and with Foxx and Levitt turning in solid performances, as well as the undeniable scene stealing tendancies displayed by Fishback , the film has its merits, but if the intent here is to mimic that of something suitable for the big screen, then Joost and Schulman have fallen woefully short. The overall experience just feels second rate.  GRADE: C

“An American Pickle” Movie Review


     Early on in director Brandon Trost’s “An American Pickle”, the filmmaker winks at the audience when the science behind his story’s plot is glossed over and said to have been verified as true by top experts.  He’s letting us know the liberties he has taken are realized and the suspension of disbelief is key if you are to continue as the yarn unspools.  Seth Rogen, armed with an Eastern European accent that instantly brought “Borat” back into my mind, plays Herschel Greenbaum, a ditch digger and low level worker at a pickle factory in 1919 Brooklyn who accidentally falls into a brining vat, which is then sealed as the company condemns the building.  But the liquid proves to be the ultimate preservative as Herschel awakens one hundred years later, perfectly healthy and having not aged at all.

     The “Borat” vibe continues as we are presented at first with a standard fish out of water scenario that sees a man who remembers a simple life, suddenly thrust into the chaos of modern society.  Fortunately for him, he has one living relative, who also happens to live right there in New York City.  Enter Ben Greenbaum, also played by Rogen, a single millennial app developer who at times seems as lost as his newly found great grandfather.

     Initially, it is Ben who answers all of Herschel’s questions centering mostly around the obvious changes in the way we live as compared to his time.  He’s astonished with Ben’s seltzer machine, as well as the fact he has seven pairs of shoes and twenty five pairs of socks.  The technology doesn’t seem to really catch his eye, but the fact Ben doesn’t have any family photos displayed in his apartment does.  You see Herschel’s entire world once revolved around his beloved Sarah (Sarah Snook), and the first thing he did, once they had saved up enough money, was purchase a plot in an attractive looking cemetery for the two of them to be buried in. Today, the cemetery is in shambles, overlooked by freeway bridges and billboards, and hardly what Herschel had envisioned for his final resting place.

     Given the fact Herschel’s existence previously centered around hard work and determination, it doesn’t take very long for him to lose respect for Ben’s way of life and accuse him of not putting in the effort it takes to succeed. A notion that leads to an immediate break up of the pair and Herschel’s staunch commitment to showing the youngster exactly what real work ethic can produce.  The second act mainly consists of a back and forth where Herschel does indeed see success with a fledgling pickle business, only to be thwarted, mainly from the use of technology and social media, by Ben who would rather see him fail.  It’s as if both men, who appear to be the same age, are looking to instill life lessons on one another, never once realizing they would be stronger together.

     Perhaps what stands out most about the film is the highly effective prologue in which we first meet Herschel and his wife Sarah back in 1919.  In addition to the beautifully photographed settings, which provide a strong indication of Trost’s roots as a DP, the love story sets the stage for a more impactful journey once Herschel arrives in modern times.  We already know what he’s made of and what’s important to him.  He lives in a world where despite everything seemingly working against him, the ability to overcome and succeed at all costs remains an ongoing mantra as he knows in order to support his wife, failure is not an option.   After seeing this,  it’s no surprise he forms a negative opinion about his great grandson so quickly.

     For the most part, Rogen pulls off the two way role, injecting a lot of what has appealed to people about him into both characters.  And while the “Borat” comparison is inevitable for Herschel, his Ben character is very much like his Fred Flarsky character in 2019’s “Long Shot”, where the freelance nature of his existence plays well with Rogen’s strengths as a middle class likable everyman stuck in a world where he doesn’t know exactly where he’s going.  That is until fate brings forth his one hundred year old great grandfather or in the case of the latter, his childhood flame who is now running for President.

     All of this, of course, ultimately leads to the gooey and sentimental center the majority of these formulaic comedies most often conclude with.  I mean, family can only be at odds for so long right?  Especially in a movie.  And with that, screenwriter Simon Rich, adapting from his own short story “Sell Out”, brings forth an entertaining vehicle for Rogen to work with.  Something undoubtedly made easier by his teaming with first time director Brandon Trost, who has worked with Rogen countless times before as the Cinematographer for “Neighbors”, “This Is the End”, and most recently “The Disaster Artist”.  And though “An American Pickle” never rises to the heights of either of those efforts, the film still manages to remain intriguing throughout and warrants enough to consider this a successful debut for Trost. GRADE: B-

“The Rental” Movie Review


the-rental-2020

     It’s obviously cliche in a horror film to have characters inhabit the story who consistently make poor and logic defying decisions when faced with the possibility of their own demise.  But by the midway point of first time director Dave Franco’s “The Rental”, the stupidity displayed may actually have you rooting for the bad guy to off all of them just to get it over with.  I really can’t recall a more unlikeable group of characters in any film of recent memory.  And that’s saying something, given what we’ve had to endure in a filmgoing year that has gotten more strange each week.

     Playing off the fear that the person you’re renting an Airbnb from for the weekend may take the protection and surveillance of their property a step too far, Franco, who also wrote the screenplay alongside Joe Swanberg, initially creates the perfect atmosphere for such a scenario, complete with a tension filled score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, and the inviting, yet potentially sinister, remote setting shot by cinematographer Christian Sprenger.  But then we are introduced to Portland area business partners Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (Shiela Vand) and any possibility of caring whether they live or die slowly begins to go down the proverbial drain.  Maybe that’s exactly what Franco was looking to do.  It would be an interesting twist, given how characters in horror films are normally not the anti hero type.  If that’s the case, perhaps he’s on to something here.

     Charlie and Mina have just closed a major deal and have a ton of work ahead of them.  To celebrate, they decide to rent a cliffside home, located alongside the Oregon coast, for the weekend.  Along for the ride will be Charlie’s wife Michelle (Allison Brie) and Mina’s boyfriend, Josh (Jeremy Allen White), who also happens to be Charlie’s younger brother.  The quartet seems to embody all of the standard millennial stereotypes, with their idea of a good time being to seclude themselves for the weekend and act as though the rules of life, and those of the home they are renting, do not apply to them.  The owner says no pets, so what do they do? Bring a dog anyway.

     The first half of the film breaks the mold of the genre instantly when we spend plenty of time listening to these youngsters talk about their lives as though they are the only ones who actually exist.  I’m all for any attempt at being a character driven film, but here, the strategy may prove to be a sort of downfall, since by the time the action starts you’re ready for the hammer to fall on all of them.  From the beginning, we immediately understand there’s probably more going on between Charlie and Mina than a simple business relationship.  In an early scene, it’s even questioned by Josh during a stroll on the beach with Michelle, where she answers with minimal confidence that she trusts her husband.

     A peek into Josh’s past is provided during a bedtime conversation between Charlie and Michelle, where the older brother makes clear his distaste for his younger sibling’s multiple failures in life.  There’s even the question by Josh himself if he’s good enough for Mina.  You understand quickly that the dynamic between the group is fragile at best, and the idea of them being alone for the weekend with plenty of booze, drugs, and a hot tub probably isn’t the greatest idea for them to leave with their friendships and relationships intact.  But then, of course, there is something else going on that sees the likelihood of them leaving at all in serious jeopardy.

     The second half of “The Rental” moves away from character study and devolves into the familiar set up of slasher film tropes.  Mina, who felt the need to front the home’s caretaker, Taylor (Toby Huss), about the possibility he purposely did not rent the home to her because of her middle eastern sounding last name, discovers a camera planted in one of the bathroom shower heads and instantly believes it is the “racist” old white guy who is spying on them.  And with him becoming the prime suspect, it’s only a matter of time before the resident hothead, her boyfriend Josh, overreacts and puts the group in a bit of a pickle.  All the while, these morons incriminate themselves through endless conversations where they never think if the house has cameras, could it also be bugged for audio too?  You probably know how the rest of the film will end.

     Those early conversational aspects of “The Rental” will likely remind you of similar exchanges in Jordan Peele’s “Get Out”, as this bunch seems hell bent on presuming every single utterance from Taylor’s mouth is either creepy or racist, something that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense since all four of them are white.  Either way, it doesn’t really matter since there are far more nefarious forces at work here.  The characters are just too dumb to realize it.  This is the kind of film where the night fog sets in on the home right about the time someone wants to do drugs and take a late night dip, oblivious to the real threat, while constantly allowing their minds to be occupied by destructive thoughts.  All of which prove to be baseless.  Is it a wonder why our country finds itself in the position we are in today?  Forget the Karens.  There are a lot more Charlies, Minas, Michelles, and Joshes flaunting accusatory race politics, and blaming their own failures on a system they believe is somehow rigged against them.  Franco could’ve left the third act on the cutting room floor, and he still would’ve had an effective horror movie.  GRADE: C

“Greyhound” Movie Review


greyhound-bus line 2-18 clip 8r-h 2020

     Director Aaron Schneider’s “Greyhound” is a thrilling exercise in wartime tactics and white knuckle intensity.  At a scant 91 minutes long, we join Captain Ernest Krause, played by Tom Hanks with all of the professionalism and esprit de corps of a true veteran, as he guides a Navy Destroyer charged with protecting a ship convoy traveling across the Atlantic during World War II.  More of a depiction of a singular event in history than an actual story, the film is based on C.S. Forester’s novel “The Good Shepherd”, with Hanks also supplying the adaptation for the screen. 

     “Greyhound” was set for an early summer theatrical release, but given the circumstances we are currently living in with no movie theaters, the studio chose to sell the film to Apple TV+ for distribution on that platform.  Such a shame since this is exactly the kind of film that demands to be seen on the big screen. Nonetheless, if there was ever a time to sign up for an Apple TV+ subscription, it would be now.  Recent war films like “The Outpost” and classics such as “Saving Private Ryan” have succeeded due in part to the realistic and visceral experience they deliver.  “Greyhound”  excels in much the same way, instantly transporting the audience to the treacherous Atlantic waters of 1942, where danger lurked and heroes were born.

      The film opens with a series of titles which set the stage.  In a significant aspect of the war effort, a coalition of Naval ships is charged with leading and protecting a convoy of supply ships making the trek across the Atlantic from the United States to the battlefield in Europe.  And lying in wait, beneath the surface of the ocean, is a pack of Nazi U-boats, looking to stop them from reaching their destination.  With the length the convoy must travel, air support, which is crucial for spotting and destroying enemy subs, is limited in range, meaning the convoy must drive on for over two days before receiving air support from the other side.

     Hanks and Schneider haven’t crafted a pillar of character development, nor do they tell the story utilizing the standard three act format.  An opening scene gives us a glimpse into Krause’s personal life, as he meets a woman we presume to be his girlfriend, Evelyn (Elisabeth Shue), at a ritzy hotel where he tells her he is about to receive his first command.  That scene transitions directly to the convoy, where Krause is already in position as commander and is in the beginning stages of his first trip across the Atlantic.  To protect the more than two dozen supply ships, he has at his disposal his own Destroyer, the U.S.S. Keeling (call sign Greyhound), as well several other ships that hail from different countries within the Allied coalition.

     The action picks up at the point where the convoy’s air support turns back, leaving every ship vulnerable to attack by Nazi U-boats hunting them, with only the weapons and tactics of the Keeling and the other Destroyers available for protection.  In what is known as the Battle of the Atlantic, it isn’t long before the Nazi’s begin to fire on and sink several ships within the convoy in a battle that rages on day and night for over 48 hours.

     As much as this film could’ve actually played quite well as an adaptation of the “Battleship” board game (no offense to Peter Berg’s 2012 film), “Greyhound” wants to bring you directly into the mind of Krause and the enormous responsibility he has to protect the entire convoy by any means necessary.  To accomplish this, Krause doesn’t eat or sleep, spending his time on the ship’s bridge barking out orders, looking through binoculars for signs of the enemy, and conversing with his people who are constantly monitoring radar and sonar for the slightest indication of enemy presence.  This may sound tedious to some, but many will find the technical details, tactics, and strategy to be fascinating.  And just when you think they may have a break, a torpedo is launched out of nowhere, heading directly for the Keeling and visualized through a number of aerial shots that show just how small the margin for error actually is.

     When your’e an accomplished actor like Tom Hanks, it would stand to reason you would want to continually challenge yourself with roles that will push the limits of your abilities.  In playing Krause, Hanks initially gives us the kind and reserved personality we’ve seen so many times from him, but once the action begins, he’s all business.  You may never see a film about a singular commander so incredibly dedicated to his craft.  There are no conversations.  Only instructions and orders that require immediate feedback from those in his charge.  Life and death decisions are made in the blink of any eye, as the survival of the entire convoy consistently hangs in the balance.  The film is quite a workout for the senses. GRADE: B+

“The Old Guard” Movie Review


90

     It would seem Charlize Theron has settled in nicely within the cinematic world of action hero badassery with recent starring roles in “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015), “Atomic Blonde” (2017), as well as a now recurring character in the “Fast & Furious” franchise.  And given her Oscar winning acting chops, she can practically play these characters in her sleep, which may explain her latest foray into the genre, “The Old Guard”.  A Netlfix offering which sees her stepping into the superhero world for the first time, though the premise is anything but original.  Action fans craving theater quality set pieces will probably laud director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s latest, especially if Netlfix’s recent film “Extraction” is your idea of high level mayhem.  The two are one and the same once the bullets begin to fly, as is the derivative storyline lifted from just about everything we’ve already seen many times before.

     No doubt, these superhero flicks are getting tricky to make.  With both the Marvel and DC behemoths to somehow counter, the sheer creation of a new and original concept can be daunting if not impossible.  “The Old Guard” is based on Greg Rucka’s graphic novel series which tells the story of a small band of immortals who throughout the centuries have been involved in many of the historical events we otherwise would have credited to the more famous figures depicted in our text books.  They were the difference makers who didn’t get all the press, but significantly contributed to the outcome of these events.  And their lone superpower? 

     They can’t die, which means shooting or bludgeoning them proves useless.  Like a very popular member of the “X-Men”, they heal immediately and are right back in the fight.  Aside from their considerable skills with weapons and hand to hand combat, they possess nothing more than their own physical gifts. As a whole, they’re also quite boring.  Led by Andy (Charlize Theron), the group, which is comprised of Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari), and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) are ageless, having found each other over the centuries by way of vivid dreams they believe lead them to one another.  The story here begins when the band of mercenaries for hire begin having these visions once again.

     Nile (KiKi Layne) is a Marine stationed in Afghanistan, who we first meet during a mission to locate a known terrorist living amongst a peaceful village.  As her team moves in and corners the man, the inevitable skirmish leads to her having her throat slit.  Her teammates desperately try to stop the bleeding, but the outcome of the devastating injury appears grim.  That’s until Nile awakens in a hospital bed without a scratch on her.  A site that clearly has her co-workers spooked and one that has her set to transfer from the base.  Of course, Andy and her team have seen all of this in their minds, with the group’s leader taking on the task of finding and retrieving her.

     Now look, all films of this genre have a number of conveniences built into the plot in order to move the story along, but Rucka (who also penned the script) and Prince-Bythewood leave an unforgivable plot hole in what is perhaps the most important sequence in the story, and are seemingly unapologetic for doing so.  

     When I say Nile is being transferred, it means right then and there.  As two Marines are escorting her from the hospital to transportation, the thin as a rail Andy shows up and knocks both of them out with punches instantly.  She does the same to Nile and then we instantly cut to a scene seeing the two of them driving in a Humvee somewhere in the desert, presumably shortly after Andy and Nile left the base.  So think about this.  Andy, while wearing a skin tight black outfit, sneaks on to a Marine base in the theater of war, finds Nile’s location within that base, KO’s two armed Marines within seconds, and kidnaps Nile against her will.  

     She then either sneaks off the base to a waiting vehicle or steals a vehicle and gets through what would be high level gate security, and does so without the base going on alert due to an intruder.  In this scenario, wouldn’t the two Marines wake up and immediately tell their superiors? Wouldn’t those superiors then alert theirs to the fact a Marine has been kidnapped by an unknown and hostile infiltrator?  I’d think at that point every resource available, land and air, would be dedicated to finding Nile.

     But somehow, they make it to an airfield and facilitate their escape in a waiting cargo plane without any resistance at all.  And that’s even with a detour inserted into the trip for the purposes of Andy and Nile having a character building moment.  It is these kinds of things that clearly bother me when the writers are too lazy to find a logical way for the characters to go from point A to point B.  Here, they just make it up as they go along, ensuring the entire first act feels as though they have no obligation to treat the audience with any level of intelligence.  Many action films like this don’t, but “The Old Guard” appears to be one of the more egregious recent examples.

     Essentially, the plot revolves around a double cross that sees an ex-CIA type, Copley (Chiwetel Ejoifor wasted in a middling role), luring the group, who now boasts Nile as a reluctant member, into the custody of an evil and well armed research corporation who aims to study their blood in an effort to develop dementia treatments.  Or something like that.  In truth, it doesn’t matter, since the bulk of this has Prince-Bythewood staging action sequences ripped straight from the influences of “The Raid” and “John Wick”, which again were on full display just last month in “Extraction”.  It’s an action film trend I guess, but in a film filled with characters who lack the charisma to carry it, “The Old Guard” is nonetheless approaching the kind of numbing territory one would get after sitting through all of Michael Bay’s “Transformers” films. GRADE: C

“The Outpost” Movie Review


the outpost - h - 2020

     Few war films have the “you’re there” quality exhibited by director Rod Lurie’s “The Outpost”, the true story of the 2009 Battle of Kamdesh which saw an small Army outpost in Afghanistan overrun by the Taliban in what proved to be an overwhelming tactical blunder on the part of U.S. forces.  Outpost Keating, as it was known, was situated near the Pakistan border and nestled within a valley overlooked by a vast mountain range, providing the enemy with an enviable vantage point for both surveillance and attack.  Lurie and screenwriters Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson recreate the unnerving existence on the outpost for the soldiers who were assigned there as a means of being in close proximity with neighboring villages and the ongoing mission to create important relationships with the local population.  

     This outpost is under the command of Lieutenant Benjamin Keating (Orlando Bloom), a  mission first Officer who values the opinion of his men and enjoys a solid relationship with virtually everyone under his command.  He’s the kind of leader who rather than dressing down someone under his charge by utilizing his authority, prefers to remind the group of his position or his need for their attention with a more soft spoken even joking style.  He leads a mission out in front of his troops, rather than behind, which is important given the often chaotic nature of existing in the environment these men are forced to cope with.  And with what they endure, you have to wonder if the need for this particular outpost outweighed the benefits.

     On a near daily basis, the Taliban perches themselves on the various mountain ridges which surround the outpost on one side.  From there, they can snipe at anyone walking around, while also gathering important intel on tactics and operations.  A common site will see soldiers immediately thrust into a battle while wearing shorts and a t-shirt since this is not a situation where everyone is on duty all the time, but one can certainly find themselves in a life and death situation instantly.  When an attack comes, the best method of defense is firing 50 caliber guns toward the threat, while mortar specialists get in position and subsequently destroy the enemy.  This way too often occurrence costs lives, meaning replacements often arrive when casualties are flown out.

     Two notable arrivals include Sergeant Clint Romesha (Scott Eastwood) and Specialist Ty Carter (Caleb Landy Jones), who both end up playing major roles in the historical significance of the events depicted in the film.  As many screenplays tend to do, foreshadowing is ever present in several early scenes, one of which has Romesha leading a patrol on the ridges overlooking the outpost when one of his men asks how he would go about assaulting their camp if he were the Taliban.  And this where the audience gets a bird’s eye tour of the encampment.  We see where the barracks are located, where the ammo and weapons are stored, and we learn where the generator that powers the entire operation is and what problems would occur if communications were wiped out.  When you hear this kind of dialogue, you know it will matter later.  The entire set up is not unlike Michael Bay’s “13 Hours”, although this is far and away a much better film.

     Lurie ensures we know many of these characters well before the third act explodes into what we know from the beginning is inevitable.  Carter seems a little off in his first scenes. A bit of an outcast if you will, who struggles to fit in.  Early on he is one of the guys running ammo to gunners in his PT gear, seemingly dodging bullets as they whiz by him and land inches away.  How could you blame someone for being a little shaky under these conditions?  We learn he was once a Marine who got kicked out, only to hold a half dozen or so medial jobs back home before the Army finally accepted him.  And what is he gifted by his superiors between running gun battles?  The unwanted task of burning barrels full of shit from the outpost’s latrines.  

     But regardless of rank, life here remains a constant exercise in survival with no real goal or tangible mission for anyone to hold on to.  They are afforded down time that sees them lifting homemade weights, talking to loved ones on a satellite phone, but more often just passing the time in sheer boredom.  That is until an attack comes out of nowhere and they instantly posture to defend the camp and annihilate the threat before one of them is killed.  The entire time, you’re watching this and wondering why these guys needed to be there in the first place, but as Keating mentions early on in the story, they will always accomplish what is asked of them, regardless of whether or not they agree with the importance of the mission or the fact the plan may not be tactically sound and could result in casualties.  In these conditions, you do what you’re told, regardless of your position in the food chain.

     When you consider what is going on today within our society, one has to wonder if the sacrifices made by the men and women of our military are taken into account when the unparalleled freedoms we enjoy are often taken for granted and often utilized in nefarious self indulgent ways.  Brought to life by standout performances from all involved, these soldiers were fighting and dying in order to quell an ongoing terrorist threat against our country and did so with the kind of honor and courage most are incapable of even dreaming of.  With “The Outpost”, Lurie has created the standard for a film depicting the Iraq/Afghan wars, doing so while offering a narrative that goes well beyond the expected action sequences, while injecting life into each of these men.  Some of them survive.  Others do not.  But we care because we know them and what they stood for.  This is the kind of dedication and selfless service our country was built on.  GRADE: A

“Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” Movie Review


eurovisionsongcontest-blogroll-1592617469629

     For well over two decades, Will Ferrell has stepped into the shoes of dozens of memorable film and television characters, while also giving us a few we’d rather forget.  Those which come to mind on the positive side would obviously include his turns in 2004’s “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”, 2006’s “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby”, and 2007’s “Blades of Glory” just to name a few. But his latest might finally rival the kind of hilarity level not seen since his days on Saturday Night Live where sketches like “More Cowbell” regularly had audiences laughing until it hurt.  From the first moments of “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga”, which sees Ferrell once again hamming it up, this time as one half of an Icelandic pop duo who longs to make it to the big time, while singing a tune called “Volcano Man”, you instantly know you’re in for a potential classic, even if the rest of the film never really reaches those heights.

     Ferrell is joined by Rachel McAdams, playing Lars Erickssong and Sigrit Ericksdottir,  and forming the band Fire Saga, who up until the events of the film performed regularly at a local pub in Iceland while honing their craft in Lars’ father’s basement.  But their present career status doesn’t stop them from dreaming big, as they aspire to someday compete in the popular Eurovision Song Contest, a sort of America’s Got Talent competition that sees singing acts representing their respective countries in a lavish high end production viewed and adored by millions.  And even though the competition is actually real, the entire story here is played as a farce with both Ferrell and McAdams adopting strange and over the top Icelandic accents that couldn’t help but remind me of Ferrell’s voice in his memorable Professor Klarvin SNL sketches.

     Complete with a series of ghastly and extravagant production numbers, “Pitch Perfect” style break outs into song, and even a plot thread centered around mystical elves, there isn’t much within the story that requires any level of seriousness by the viewer.  Ferrell’s trademark antics and underdog character traits are on full display at all times.  He’s the same oversized goof that has defined many of his characters, but the difference here is the infusion of a female lead who is every bit as game in achieving stratospheric levels of buffoonery as he is.  Make no mistake, this is Rachel McAdams movie.  Will Ferrell, with his shtick now all too common, is merely an observer most of the time.

     It shouldn’t be lost on the audience that Lars looks a bit old to be living in his father’s basement.  The town views him as a joke, laughing out loud when his frequent blunders have regularly been on display within a town where everyone knows each other.  Sigrit may very well have the ability to reign him in, but the couple doesn’t seem to possess the kind of chemistry necessary for an actual romantic relationship.  Something that is complicated by the fact everyone in the town believes they are brother and sister due to the exploits of Lars’ father, Erick (Pierce Brosnan, who thankfully doesn’t sing in the film).  At their age, the two seem to be meandering through life hoping for a big break, which ultimately comes, as we are shown, through pure luck.

     When a tragedy literally kills their competition, Fire Saga is invited to the Eurovision Song Contest as Iceland’s entrant.  But even with the gloss of a high end production, Lars and Sigrit seem destined for failure every time they perform on stage.  It’s the standard storyline that has fueled nearly all of Ferrell’s characters, but here he has an equal partner to share in the constant misery, before both ultimately find a way to succeed in the end.  Getting there, via a script by Ferrell and SNL vet Andrew Steele, is a bumpy and uneven ride at times, leaving “Wedding Crashers” director David Dobkin with the inclusion of several scenes that contribute to a bloated 123 minute running time.  The film will achieve some momentum, but then suddenly come to a crawl with needless exposition and a series of silly subplots which do not have any impact on the outcome.

     Dobkin has; however, achieved an entertaining entry into what can only be described as one downer of a summer for obvious reasons.  I mean, who wouldn’t want to be at a lavish gathering of all the competition’s rather garish entrants and witness the many talented performers in the room suddenly break out into song, belting out tunes including Cher’s “Believe”, and the obvious inclusion of Abba’s “Waterloo”?  It’s the kind of sequence that will put a smile on anyone’s face.  Something we could all use a little more of these days.  GRADE: B