“Triple Threat” Movie Review


     My good friend, Jon Gentile, and I have been talking martial arts films for over two decades now.  So much so, we created a Top Ten Martial Arts Films of All Time list in 2014 to discern which films stood atop our individual mantles as the very best.  Bottom line is, I’m a sucker for a good fight sequence and the thought of putting together a modern martial arts dream team to unleash their brutal skills on each other in well choreographed mayhem is exactly the kind of experience I want at the movies.  Director Jesse V. Johnson has assembled just that sort of team in “Triple Threat”, combining a group of modern martial arts stars with a few older ones  in a film that exists not for its story or plot, but to create scenarios where these guys can face off and show the audience why their technique, athleticism, and brute strength are legendary.

     Know this going in, “Triple Threat” is the kind of movie where one of the main characters will stand in front of an adversary armed with a machine gun at point blank range, and fire every round in the magazine into the ground just so they can have a fist fight instead.  Logic in terms of tactics and winning these scenarios are completely out the window in favor of seeing whose stand up fighting abilities are superior.  I suppose you could make the argument that the good guys would rather win in a more honorable way, but given the circumstances of these encounters, taking out a villain or two with a bullet would’ve been the more energy economical way to go, but then we wouldn’t get to see the wild stunts and fight choreography Johnson and most of his cast have made their careers on.

     The film opens with a team of operators moving through a remote jungle in China where they seek to free one of their own who is being held captive in a hidden village.  They are led by two hired local mercenaries, Payu (Tony Jaa) and Long Fei (Tiger Chen), who are charged with helping the team locate the village and extract Collins (Scott Adkins), a fellow assassin being held there under the assumption he is a terrorist.  With a swift and fatal blow, the team moves in, killing nearly everyone in the village with an endless spray of automatic gunfire.  The attack awakens a bystander in one of the tents, Jaka (Iko Uwais), only to witness his wife being shot in the cross fire and dying in his arms.  Jaka briefly engages in a fight with Long Fei during the ongoing gun battle, but is knocked out and left for dead.  Minutes later, the team finds Collins in an underground cell and then proceed to burn the village to the ground.

     The screenwriters (Joey O’Bryan, Fangjin Song, Paul Staheli) send Jaka on the standard quest for revenge we often see in these types of films, with the endgame always leading directly to a showdown with the primary villains, who in this case are directly responsible for the murder of his wife.  His initial focus is to catch up with Payu and Long Fei, but all is not as it seems with that duo as they are victims of betrayal themselves and were a part of the nefarious team that killed Jaka’s wife under a false pretense.  And at that point, we now have the assembling of our first marital arts dream team with Tony Jaa (“Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior”, “The Protector”, “Furious 7”), Iko Uwais (“The Raid: Redemption”, “The Raid 2”, “Mile 22”), and Tiger Chen (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, “The Matrix Reloaded”) all on a war path to take down the high end group of assassins.

     Those assassins, now that their team is again intact, have been hired to kill the daughter of a Chinese billionaire who is set to take down a major criminal organization.  The operation to do so brings the assassins, their target, and our trio of martial arts experts together in the same location, forcing them to do battle.  In the bad guy corner, Scott Adkins (“The Expendables 2”, “American Assassin”), Michael Bisping (former UFC Middleweight Champion), and Michael Jai White (“Spawn”, “The Dark Knight”) are waiting for our heroes as they duke it out first in a police station in the film’s action centerpiece, and later in an abandoned building perfect for the ultimate showdown.  None of this is to be take seriously of course.  When you look at a film like “Triple Threat”, the critical eye is squarely on the fight choreography as you compare each sequence to the previous work of Jaa, Chen, and Uwais, while also measuring it against the greatest martial arts films of all time.

     The verdict sees better work from all involved in their previous films, but that’s not to say the film doesn’t achieve the kind of gripping bare knuckle stunt work all martial arts fans crave. “Triple Threat” works really hard to ensure you get what you paid for.  And if you’re a fan of any of these guys, then you’ll welcome the melding of styles in every scene.  Tony Jaa’s brutal flying elbows to the top of the head, Iko Uwais’ pin point close quarters Indonesian fighting technique, and the brute force of Michael Bisping’s real life tested MMA style are all on full display.  It’s a true throwback to the 80s where the over the top violence is what you’re there for and everything else is secondary.  GRADE: C

“Shazam!” Movie Review

     After  a string of dark and overly serious entries in the DC Extended Universe, the crosstown rival to Marvel lightened things up a bit, first with 2017’s “Wonder Woman” and then even more so with 2018’s “Aquaman”.  Noting the success of both of those films, the seventh film in the DCU, “Shazam!”, brings the genre squarely into comedic territory, where not a thing we see on screen is meant to be taken seriously.  Whether that’s the right avenue moving forward clearly depends on the character, but director David Sandberg’s iteration of this magic infused superhero certainly works well, particularly given the ages of the protagonists and the adolescent behavior that drives the action.  

     The story centers around a young boy who is mercilessly antagonized by both his older brother and father.  In an opening scene, he can do no right, all the while just sitting in the backseat of their car playing with a magic eight ball toy.  But suddenly, the toy transports him to a wizard’s lair where he is tested for his heart and compassion towards people.  The wizard (Djimon Hounsou), offers the boy his powers, but first he must demonstrate the ability to turn away from temptation.  Unfortunately, because of his built in lust for revenge, he fails the test and is returned to the backseat of the car.  Fast forward decades later, and Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) has dedicated his life to recreating the doorway to the wizard’s world, where he hopes to again be offered the wizard’s magical powers.

     At the same time, we meet Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a middle school aged foster child who has been searching for his real mother by moving from city to city and looking up and verifying every name in the phone book that matches his mother’s name.  When we catch up with Billy, he is being placed in a new foster home lovingly created by Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa (Marta Milans) Vasquez.  And with this adding to the long list of homes he has already run away from, there isn’t much motivation for him to get to know his latest siblings, though his handicapped new brother, Freddy Freeman (Jack Grazer), is more than willing to share his room with a potential new friend.  It appears he doesn’t have many of them at school.

     Freddy often falls victim to bullying from two older kids, and the first incident where Billy sees this, he intervenes.  The ensuing foot chase leads Billy to a subway train where he is also suddenly transported to the wizard’s domain once visited by Thaddeus.  But Billy makes the right choice and is given the wizard’s powers, which he is told will be instantly unleashed by simply saying the wizard’s name: Shazam!  This, of course, transforms him into a grown version of himself (played by Zachary Levi), all decked out in a red spandex suit,  white cape, gold boots,  and a lightning bolt on his chest that appears to be the source of his power.  Once Billy finds himself back in the real world getting around in this garb, you have to wonder just how silly it actually looks to people given the fact it is mentioned from the beginning the film takes place in the same DC world as Batman and Superman.  In other words, Shazam shouldn’t exactly be a surprise.

     Many have already pointed out the similarities the story line has with 1988’s “Big”, but the sequences involving Billy in superhero form discovering his abilities with the aid of a very super skills knowledgable Freddy, play like 1981’s hit TV show “The Greatest American Hero” more than anything else.  I’m obviously dating myself, but you may recall in that show aliens endow an unsuspecting school teacher with a suit that essentially gives him the powers we associate with Superman, but there wasn’t exactly an instruction manual, meaning much of what he could do with the suit on needed to be learned on the fly (no pun intended).  And that’s exactly what Billy deals with initially, as he and Freddy go through a series of trials in an effort to figure out exactly what his new found powers are?  Is he bullet proof?  Does he have super strength?  Can he fly?

     Those questions are eventually answered, but the story relies heavily on the everyday kid who wants to be a superhero really bad narrative that was already used, albeit in hard R fashion, in Matthew Vaughn’s “Kick-Ass”.  And though the heroes in that film didn’t actually possess any real super powers the way Billy does, the trial and error aspect, combined with plenty of teen angst and school yard problems are generally the same in both films.  Something that takes a bit away from the originality of the direction the filmmakers chose to go here.  Perhaps the fact Mark Strong plays the villain in both films creates a bit too much familiarity for “Shazam!” to pass as something that feels new and fresh.

     The villain played by Strong ends up finding a way to acquire his own set of super powers, as his nefarious actions are controlled by monsters who represent each of the seven deadly sins.  All of which leads to the inevitable third act showdown where we are meant to wonder whether or not Shazam can measure up and defeat Thaddeus.  For how dark that actually sounds, Sandberg never allows the proceedings to delve into the bleak territory that seemed to weigh down Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”.  Instead, screenwriter Henry Gayden ensures the characters are wise cracking from beginning to end, or in other words, acting like the kids they actually are.  The entertainment value this brings cannot be denied.  Much of this works well, as the DCU has managed to create a new on screen hero to pair up with any of the already established superheroes.  With both Batman and Superman in development hell (both actors have moved on), could we be on the precipice of a Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Shazam team up?  GRADE: B

“Dragged Across Concrete” Movie Review


     If you’re already familiar with writer/director S. Craig Zahler’s previous work, then his new film, “Dragged Across Concrete”, will certainly come as no surprise, much less be shocking in any way.  His debut feature, “Bone Tomahawk” (2015), featured Kurt Russell in a lead role that would see him forced to confront a tribe of cannibals and lose in ways that would cost him and his men more than just a few scratches.  Zahler has a clear penchant for hyper realistic violence.  If his script calls for a character to have their head blown off, then that is exactly what you will see down to the very last gory detail.  He intends to shock, just when you least expect it, or perhaps more accurately, he’ll do it after his characters have had the opportunity to stick around a while and get to know their audience.  For some viewers, that may mean the 2 hour 39 minute run time of “Dragged Across Concrete” may be a bit overlong, but you can’t deny the effectiveness of the character development on display.  The result is more akin to episodic television than a feature film.  And that’s a good thing.

     Casting Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn as two overworked and under appreciated cops is also a good place to start when you have a story to tell.  And Zahler loads both of these characters with enough on screen exposition to probably fill two movies, but the fact we really learn about these guys pays dividends later.  When we first catch up with the duo, Brett Ridgeman (Gibson) and Anthony Lurasetti (Vaughn) are plain clothes narcotics detectives conducting an early morning stakeout on a suspected dealer’s residence.  Using a ruse, they get their man to exit through a window where both are waiting to take him into custody.

     The suspect doesn’t resist when Ridgeman takes him to the ground at gun point and proceeds to hold him there by placing his boot on the suspect’s head and neck.  Lurasetti searches his him and finds a gun, but the suspect won’t give up the location in the apartment where the stash is kept.  That is not until Ridgeman presses down harder with his foot on the suspect’s head that is caught between Ridgeman and the steel catwalk of a fire escape.  Zahler quick cuts to a nearby window where someone is watching and then comes back to the action where the drug dealer alerts Ridgeman he has a guest inside.  Interestingly enough, this is exactly where Zahler doesn’t take his time, and veers off the path of realism during several key scenes.

     Echoing today’s common annoyance of people filming everything with their phones, a witness to what occurred on the fire escape has sent a video he/she shot to the news, who has alerted the police department’s chain of command.  In one swift stroke, as if he is judge, jury, and executioner, their boss, Lt. Calvert (Don Johnson) in his only scene in the film, calls them into a meeting where they are given a 6 week suspension and are forced to hand over their badges.  Now it doesn’t really work that way in real life, and truth be told, Ridgeman’s actions are not overly excessive, nor would they appear that way on an iPhone video shot from across the street, but nonetheless, all of this is important in order to propel the story where Zahler really wants it to go.

     Some key details on Ridgeman reveal a cop just a month shy of his 60th birthday who lives in a bad neighborhood and is financially unable to move he and his wife, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, and his daughter, who is consistently picked on and assaulted by kids in their street, away from the city and to a place where they are more comfortable.  For a guy who has been on the job for more than 30 years, he certainly has very little to show for it, and he knows it.  Which is why he calls in a favor and receives intel on a crew who is said to be conducting a big money transaction that could easily be acquired by two people with the right skill set.  And Lurasetti, some 20 years younger but also struggling financially, doesn’t take a whole lot of convincing when Ridgeman lays out a plan to steal from known criminals.

     Along with our two cops, Zahler introduces another key player as well, giving us important information as we go along while clearly indicating he will play into what’s going at some point.  Henry (Tory Kittles) has just been released from prison and returns to find the world he left in complete shambles.  We instantly find out his mother has now resorted to prostitution in order to survive and continue to care for her handicapped younger son, something that is ended immediately as Henry lands a well paying gig courtesy of his long time buddy, Biscuit (Michael Jai White).  You quickly realize as all of this unfolds that our characters share quite a bit in common as far as their motives, particularly given the reasoning each of them utilizes to convince themselves that a criminal act is worth the risk if it means helping those at home.

     All of Zahler’s characters here exhibit a hard edge and spout the kind of dialogue that ensures we will not mistake which side they are on.  Much of it is racially charged and often said within groups of people who share the same beliefs.  You have one character who claims to be “liberal”, but has now become racist because of incidents involving black kids in the neighborhood.  As if kids of other ethnic groups are not capable of doing the very same things.  If anything, these characters are a clear indication of the tribal nature of our society of which Zahler is clearly attempting to convey.  He nails the typical banter between cops on an hours long stakeout, while also exploring the lives of the underprivileged and the urge to do what it takes to get out of a deplorable situation.  These characters are hungry for change in their lives, which is perhaps why Zahler stages a scene where we watch Lurasetti meticulously devour a sandwich during a stakeout with Ridgeman, as every bite is articulated with the most nauseating and annoying sounds the foley department could find.

     As it turns out, the true evil in the film isn’t either of the main players, but rather a small group of masked men who go to unspeakable lengths of cruelty and violence in order to accomplish their mission.  And they are so over the top at times that Zahler practically dares the audience to cheer for the crooked cops and the ex-convicts to somehow claim victory, even when the odds begin to stack against them.  “Dragged Across Concrete” is one of those films that will require you to indulge the filmmaker’s plea to get to know these characters well enough that when something terrible happens to them, you will actually care.  GRADE: B+

“Us” Movie Review


     Writer / Director Jordan Peele’s “Us” leaves behind the overt sociopolitical satire of his debut feature, “Get Out”, and instead treats the audience to one of the most original movie ideas I’ve seen in quite some time.  And that’s saying something, considering the filmmaker has once again set his story within the cliche ridden horror genre.  This is truly one of the first horror films in the last ten years where it would be difficult to pinpoint a classic film’s influence.  In other words, Peele has turned the genre upside down and created a haunting new vision without lifting scenes from “Halloween”, “Psycho”, or “The Exorcist”.  If anything, Peele seems to appreciate the art of the Shyamalan style twist, given the wallop of a third act this film is armed with.

     “Us” is framed by a sequence in which a young girl, while celebrating her birthday at a beachside amusement park, ventures off alone and curiously enters a house of mirrors attraction that appears closed and vacant.  Inside, the darkness combined with the mirrored walls camouflages a way out of the maze, until she suddenly comes face to face with something that truly horrifies her.  When the story shifts into the future, that young girl is now grown up, but the scars of that night remain.  Her name is Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) and she, along with her family, husband Gabe (Winston Duke), daughter Zora (Shadadi Wright Joseph), and son Jason (Evan Alex), are on their way to the family’s summer home for a vacation.

     Gabe may not be fully aware of the impactful incident that occurred to his wife as a child, something that at this point the audience is not fully aware of either, but nonetheless suggests the family venture to the same Santa Cruz beach where it happened for a day of sun and social time with another couple.  Peele takes his time building tension by using the motherly instincts of Adelaide and her over supervision of Zora and Jason as if she is constantly in fear of something happening to them as well.  An incident where Jason simply goes to use the bathroom and can’t be found for a few minutes leads to an excruciating moment of terror and potential loss for Adelaide as her assumption always leans towards the worst possible outcome.

     That night, as the family is getting ready for bed, and Adelaide is suggesting they conclude the vacation and leave in the morning, four strangers are spotted standing at the foot of their driveway.  The ominous silhouettes are faceless from a far, but appear to stand at the height of a common family with a man, a woman, and two children.  And when Gabe confronts them but receives no reply or reaction to his demand they leave their property, he suggests calling the police who are some 14 minutes away.  Which given the situation, leaves them to fend for themselves when suddenly, the four strangers systematically invade the residence by force, only to overpower the entire Wilson family and convene them in the living room where the identities of the these four people are revealed.

     Going into “Us”, you are no doubt aware the intruders are doppelgängers of the entire Wilson family, but what they want is still very much a mystery.  As you would expect, Gabe, Adelaide, and their game children don’t simply lie down and succumb to the nefarious wishes of their guests.  Peele stages a series of showdowns between each character and their respective twin, who seem to be slightly stronger and faster where it counts, meaning their defeat proves difficult.  But these Wilson’s are smart, particularly Adelaide, who soon finds out there is something much bigger going on when their neighbors are suddenly attacked by doppelgängers of their own.

     Peele and his collaborators use a combination of music and sound to create an intense environment that seemingly never lets up once things begin to move.  And it is these elements which allow for a number of scares and jumps throughout, but what really shines through as the most exceptional part of all of this is Peele’s script which keeps you on guard and guessing all the way to the very last shot.  What he’s done here is play the role of puppet master to the audience in a way that very few have in cinematic history.  It’s as if he’s leading you somewhere, only to turn that theory directly on its head and leave you wondering where all of this could possibly go, until something else is revealed and you realize it was in front of you all along.  I do; however, think Peele could’ve done without the use of a certain NWA song at a crucial part of the film.  Its inclusion has nothing to do with the story and in my eyes was simply in bad taste.

     During the film’s press tour, Peele was quoted as saying several times when addressing the meaning of “Us” that it intends to convey the fact we are often our worst enemies.  Of course without exploring the third act, it’s impossible to really delve into the meaning of the story, but my takeaways would certainly include a statement about oppression and the fact there are people living among us who are human too, but aren’t privileged with the same opportunities in life.  I have to figure that’s ultimately where Peele was going, but even without some underlying subtextual thought on class, he has still managed to tell a thought provoking story, while creating a sort of event status for likely every film he makes in the next decade.  GRADE: B+

“Triple Frontier” Movie Review


     Beneath its outer shell, director J.C. Chandor’s “Triple Frontier” is actually tackling a number of issues that have faced our military veterans for decades.  Utilizing the same sort of approach used in 1982’s “First Blood”, the film tells the story of five ex special forces operators who now live on the outskirts of their previous occupation, barely making ends meet and feeling as though their sacrifices were never properly recognized, and their skill sets no longer meaningful in the civilian world.  “Triple Frontier” features a screenplay from Mark Boal, who boasts an Academy Award for “The Hurt Locker”, as well as a nomination for “Zero Dark Thirty”, but his work here never rises to the level of either of those films, even though he is revisiting familiar territory.

     Santiago Garcia (Oscar Isaac), a retired special forces operator, is a consultant for a private company supporting missions against drug cartels in South America.  The film begins with a dangerous arrest attempt of a notorious cartel lord holed up in a small town.  And when it becomes clear their adversaries are in possession of as much firepower as they are, Santiago transitions from his consultant role and utilizes his considerable skills to help overcome their well armed enemy.  But the operation doesn’t net their target, a mysterious unseen cartel boss named Lorea.

     The mission’s ultimate failure becomes a gain for Santiago, as he returns stateside to track down a few of his former co-workers who might be interested in teaming up one more time.  We first meet William Miller (Charlie Hunnam), a former special ops guy who spends his days lecturing new recruits as an accomplished soldier being brought in to give motivational speeches.  It’s not exactly what he had hoped for after retiring.  As Santiago sits in the back of a classroom while one of these talks is delivered, he knows William will be more than willing to listen to his proposal.  As will Ben (Garrett Hedlund), William’s also retired from special ops brother who is trying to make a living on the lower rungs of the MMA circuit, making a paltry $100 per fight.  And with their former pilot, Francisco Morales (Pedro Pascal) also desperate to find his way in the civilian world, there is only one more man to convince.

     All of these guys agree, without their former commander, Tom Davis (Ben Affleck), there is no mission.  As it’s said his ability to plan and execute an operation is unmatched.  And like his former charges, he struggles with daily life, now trying to make a living selling cheap condos and barely able to support his family.  But upon Santiago’s original presentation of what he refers to as his “work”, Tom balks at the idea, since he knows being gone doing covert operations around the world is as much to blame for his current situation as is his ability to adapt to civilian life is.  But as it turns out, there are many more good reasons for these guys to pass, given the long odds for success.  What Chandor and Boal have concocted here is the ultimate high risk - high reward scenario.  Exactly the kind of challenge any special ops guy would love to sink his teeth into.

     The initial portion of the job is actually legit.  The company Santiago works for wants the group to conduct a reconnaissance mission to document Lorea’s residence located deep in the Amazon jungle at the triple borders of Peru, Brazil, and Colombia.  Each man is guaranteed $17 thousand for one week of work, but Santiago has also devised an extension of that plan, which is also secretly backed by the same company.  In what would essentially mean these men conducting an operation for the first time without the support of their country, Santiago pitches a plan where they would enter the residence when the family goes to church, leaving only two guards on the property and the bulk of what is estimated to be a $50 million plus cash fortune.  And with an informant working on the inside who is able to ensure an empty van will already be on the premise to load the money in and make their getaway, what could go wrong?

     “Triple Frontier” has a lot of the kind of scenes the “Call of Duty” crowd will love, as our team surgically dismantles the obstacles placed in front of them, easily overwhelming their targets and successfully completing their mission.  But as with any story like this, it is the egos, and in some cases the mental health, of certain members of the team that prove difficult to overcome.  

     The performances by the actors are fine, and the picturesque cinematography delivered by Roman Vasyanov (“End of Watch”) bring forth a real fear that the surroundings these men find themselves in may be the most challenging of their storied military careers.  We are meant to take each of these characters as a sort of stereotype for the situation each of them is in.  In other words, the argument here is all military veterans are coming home and being underutilized, which is true.

     But we are given very little backstory on any of them, which means the audience may not care whether they make it through this ordeal or not, since we really don’t know if anyone will miss them back home.  Or maybe we are meant to believe each of them functions as a loner in civilian society, as they are consistently bogged down with the thought they have seen and experienced the kind of horror few people have, while the enormous contributions they once made for their country are now seemingly ignored.  Kind of like that line in “First Blood” where John Rambo complains to  Colonel Trautman “I used to be in charge of million dollar equipment!”.  Now these guys are left with no other choice than to utilize their skills for themselves, even if they are committing a terrible crime.  GRADE: B-

“Captain Marvel” Movie Review


     “Captain Marvel”, the 21st film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, may be the first to have a female lead, but it also suffers from a “we’ve been here before many times” kind of feeling.  Never once does the storyline or the characters who populate it seem fresh or groundbreaking, as the formula used in so many of these superhero origin stories has now become stale and pedestrian at times.  That’s not to say directors Ann Boden and Ryan Fleck haven’t delivered a colorful, entertaining, and often hilarious take on the character’s origin story, but much of what we see on screen contains imagery seemingly lifted from other recent films, particularly an unmistakable “Guardians of the Galaxy” vibe that plays like a second rate imitation. This is the definition of formula filmmaking in its most obvious state.

     Since the 2008 debut of “Iron Man”, the MCU has successfully hummed along without a hitch, creating a behemoth franchise of which I have continually sung its praises.  And with each character introduction came the juicy possibility of a team up and ultimately something bigger where an entire collection of heroes would stand against unspeakable evil and somehow prevail in the name of humankind.  All of this, of course, was realized in “The Avengers”, which has nearly every filmgoer on the planet anxiously awaiting the conclusion to that ongoing storyline in the upcoming “Avengers: End Game”.  But Marvel felt it was necessary to add someone else to the fold before we get there.  As if all of the character development in the last ten years was no longer enough, and one more savior needed to be thrust into the mix.

     As an origin story, “Captain Marvel” is a by the numbers Marvel experience.  Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, and Geneva Robertson-Dworet wrote a screenplay that effectively chronicles the story of Air Force pilot Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), while also fleshing out the beginnings of the Avengers Initiative and stalwart agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).  Initially, the film has our heroine as a member of an alien race called the Kree, who are fighting an intergalactic war against a shape shifting race called the Skrulls. When one of these battles temporarily goes the way of the enemy, “Vers”, as she is known to the Kree, is captured and her mind is raided in order to find the location of a mysterious technology that happens to be on Earth.  All of this leads both the Kree and the Skrulls to Earth in order to acquire it, which  jogs the memory of Danvers, who now begins to question whether she might have once had a life on Earth.

     When all parties arrive it’s the mid 1990s, and the filmmakers waste no time ensuring the music and production design is jam packed with every brand, style, and cliche of the time as Danvers initially crashes through the roof of, wait for it, a Blockbuster Video store.  And even though the aisles are filled with VHS tapes and other long gone forms of media, she immediately takes a page from the “E.T.” play book and heads over to the Radio Shack next door where she is able to utilize current communication technologies to somehow talk to her Kree mentor, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) and ask for help.  Later on, an alien “science guy” is able to convert a standard aircraft into one capable of flying in space with what seems to be a few simple and quick modifications, which reminded me of Scotty punching in the formula of “Transparent Aluminum” into a 1980's computer in “Star Trek 4: The Voyage Home” in order to get the walls for the whale tank made.  There is plenty of time spent poking at the 90s as if to boast as to how far we’ve come since, when in reality we’ve clearly taken many steps backward.

     Danvers meets Fury, a magically de-aged Jackson, via his investigation of her initial arrival on Earth and both soon find themselves in the middle of a race to find a certain artifact already well known within the lore of these films while attempting to avoid the Skrulls, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), who seem desperate to reach it first.  This leads the duo, who share a great on screen chemistry together, through the streets of Los Angeles to secret military bases and eventually into space.  Along the way, Danvers, who already possesses the ability to fire powerful energy bolts from both fists at her enemies, begins to discover other abilities, as well as the answers to where she came from and how she somehow found herself a part of the Kree with no memories as to how she got there.

     All of this ties in nicely with the current and upcoming Marvel storylines in an effort to wedge Captain Marvel into “End Game”, but I have to wonder whether or not this film might have been better served to come after rather than before.  Perhaps the character could’ve spearheaded a completely new storyline in the MCU instead of being forced into the current one less than two months before everything we’ve seen culminates together in “End Game”.  Regardless, it is clear the character will have a huge roll moving forward, as the MCU could end up spending more time with its alien characters, rather than the Earth based heroes we have been accustomed to.

     And while the post credit scene in last summer’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp” left the audience shocked, the obligatory exercise in “Captain Marvel” gives away what potentially could’ve been an emotion filled entrance in “End Game” by concocting a half baked scene with those left from Thanos’ extermination of half the population that completely whiffs and takes all of the drama out of the pager explanation, after having seen Fury activate it in the post credit scene for “Infinity War”.  Come to think of it, why do these films need post credit scenes anyway?

     That pager, by the way, which is not used as a plot device for this film, but rather one that connects “Captain Marvel” to the upcoming “End Game”, brings forth the question I most often ask after seeing these films.  Danvers instructs Fury to only use it to summon her in an “emergency”.  Is that to say the myriad of threats these heroes have already faced in previous entries did not constitute an emergency?  And what expertise does Fury have to make that determination when the Avengers regularly face adversaries who arrive from other planets?  

     In the time span between the mid 1990s and the present day storyline, there is quite a bit to explore in further installments that could open the door to yet another Danvers / Fury partnership, but also an entire universe of new yet to be unveiled characters.  And I know it is necessary (and financially lucrative) to do an introductory story for every main character, so even if “Captain Marvel” is not the studio’s best work, there is always a purpose which lends to something much bigger.  With the origin story told, perhaps her “End Game” appearance is more of a beginning than an end.  Marvel Studios has earned the benefit of the doubt.  Lets see where they take this.


“Alita: Battle Angel” Movie Review


     James Cameron has long been planning a feature adaptation of the Japanese manga “Battle Angel Alita”, going back as far as 2004 where the plan was for the film to be his followup to “Titanic”.  Cameron toiled in a series of fascinating underwater documentaries during that time and for whatever reason never brought “Alita” to the screen, but would, of course, go on to make “Avatar” in 2009, which ultimately shelved the project.  Ironically, with a series of sequels to “Avatar” in production, Cameron decided to hand the reigns for the newly titled  “Alita: Battle Angel” to director Robert Rodriguez, another of my favorite filmmakers whose credits include “Desperado”, “Sin City”, & “From Dusk Till Dawn”.  Cameron co-produces and provided the script along with Rodriguez and Laeta Kalogridis, which tells the story of a young female cyborg brought back to life by a doctor who repairs cyborgs by trade, but also deals with the daily reminders of a tragic loss that left him forever scarred.

     In the opening scenes, we meet Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) as he scavenges for robot parts within a garbage dump seemingly located in the center of a run down city, while high above, trash falls from a massive stucture called Zalem that somehow hovers over the ruins.  Later, we learn of a war that nearly ended human kind and forced the people left to live together within a grungy run down metropolis called Iron City.  And in much of the same fashion as similar scenarios depicted in films like “Snowpiercer” and “Elysium”, it is the lower class people who must scrape by within the scum filled dirty streets of Iron City, while the higher class, rich people live in what is perceived as luxury in Zalem.  We never actually see Zalem in the film, instead leaving the audience to wonder in much the same way as the characters do.  Essentially, everyone’s goal is to someday get there, with a rumored amount of money it would take and many of the inhabitants of Iron City involved in some sort of scam that will allow them to someday make the trip.

     Dr. Ido finds the remains of a cyborg body within the garbage dump and brings it back to his lab where he affixes the head and upper torso that remained intact to a robotic body that was once meant for his daughter.  When the cyborg awakens, she doesn’t remember where she came from or who she is, but given Dr. Ido’s recent loss and the fact she reminds him of his lost daughter, he gives her the name Alita (Rosa Salazar in a motion capture performance).  But it isn’t long before Alita, through a number of situations she finds herself in early on, begins to remember portions of her past.  One of which is the fact she is really good at fighting.

     With the Iron City population composed of a majority of people who in some way are at least partially robotic, the hoarding of parts is both a business, as well as a common crime in which street thugs regularly accost those with new upgrades and hold them down while sawing off whatever they please, particularly looking for versions of arms and legs that also serve as or conceal weapons.  One of the notable conspirators of this racket is Vector (Mahershala Ali), a higher class business man who runs a popular sports league called Motorball, which is a hybrid of car racing with roller derby, but also reminded me a lot of an arcade game I used to play called Cyberball.  In this competition, juiced up robotic cyborgs equipped with motorized roller blades chase whoever has the ball around a massive track, as they attempt to violently remove the ball from their possession before it is returned to the starting point.  And it just so happens Alita, with her immense strength, quickness, and athleticism, excels at the game.

     She is given the opportunity to compete after gaining the attention of a street hustler named Hugo (Keean Johnson), of whom she takes a liking to, and begins to display the same kind of teenage angst you might see in a girl her age who is human, which also forces Dr. Ido to function as her father and deal with these issues like a parent would.  Ido’s estranged wife, Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), conveniently re-enters his life when Alita begins to evolve, which complicates matters given she is currently shacked up with Vector.   There is clearly something inside of Alita that wants to come out.  There’s an ongoing feeling she is meant for more and has likely experienced things others could only dream of, such as actually having been on Zalem.

     There’s a scene where all of this essentially materializes when Alita and Hugo walk into a bar that is set up almost exactly like the one in “From Dusk Till Dawn”, but instead of truckers and bikers, the bar is populated with cyborg bounty hunters.  It’s the kind of set up where I half expected Tom Savini to be sitting at one of the tables waiting to greet someone with that famous groin gun that has made an appearance in several of Rodriguez’s films, but what we end up getting is even better.  Fueled by CGI courtesy of Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital, “Alita: Battle Angel” thrills with an array of astounding sequences in which she takes on lethal bounty hunters, Vector’s nefarious henchmen, as well as the adrenaline packed high speed game play in the Motorball arena.  The entire film is a visual feast, complete with intriguing world building and ultra detailed design elements that play quite original and avoid the standard echos of classics like “Star Wars” and “Blade Runner” that we see so often in science fiction films of this kind.  It’s the kind of visual punch not unlike last year’s “Ready Player One”.

     Cameron without question ensures the film sets up a sequel, if for no other reason than the driving force behind the entire plot is a mysterious man named Nova who has the ability to control Vector, among others, via some form of telepathy, all while remaining on Zalem.  And with the action centered on Alita figuring out who she is and what her abilities are, we soon realize there is another entire half of the story that isn’t told, as the ominous floating city above is never actually seen.  You begin to wonder what’s going on up there and how is it effecting what is happening down below.  I suppose that’s the next stop if this installment proves profitable enough to warrant a sequel, which remains to be seen given the reported $200 million dollar budget before marketing.  Quite a step up for Rodriguez who broke into the business with 1992’s “El Mariachi”, a film that cost $7000 to make.  GRADE: B+

“High Flying Bird” Movie Review


     With “High Flying Bird”, director Steven Soderbergh delves into the world of professional basketball at a time where the entertainment aspect of one of the world’s most popular sports leagues unceremoniously comes to a grinding halt.  With the advent of collective bargaining and the game’s most prominent athletes looking for a larger cut from the owners, the expiration of such contracts almost always means the threat of a lock out, the last of which occurred in 2011, leaving the NBA with a shortened 66 game season.  But aside from the wrangling back and forth between the attorneys representing the player’s association and the owners, what actually goes on behind the scenes?  How does the situation effect rookies coming into the league?  And with a sudden loss of their primary income stream, how do players and their agents survive?

     Working from a script by Tarell Alvin McCraney (“Moonlight”), Soderbergh again pushes the limits of that electronic device we all have in our pockets and shoots the entire film on an iPhone.  Citing the ability to both put a camera anywhere he needs it at a moments notice, as well as the ability to see exactly what he’s shot before moving on to the next, Soderbergh utilizes the camera to squeeze into tight spaces in vehicles, as well as for a number of impressive wide angle shots that take full advantage of the story’s New York setting.  He also has a game cast in front of him who seem to be oblivious to the fact he’s using a smart phone.

     In the opening scene, we begin to understand the tenuous situation a work stoppage can cause within the various levels of what is a massive corporate machine.  Ray Burke (Andre Holland) is a sports agent who is currently overseeing the affairs of the NBA’s number one draft pick, Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), as the two meet for lunch to discuss the ramifications of a high interest loan Erick recently took out in order to fund his new lifestyle while waiting for his rookie contract to kick in.  The issue here is the fact this kid was drafted, but has yet to receive a dime due to the work stoppage.  This also means Ray doesn’t receive his commission either, a notion that becomes painfully real when his corporate card is denied when he attempts to pay for lunch.  Ray implores Erick to be patient, wait it out, and to not do anything stupid that would jeopardize his ability to maximize his star power when the lock out ends.  Above all, he implores the youngster to understand the league is a business first.

     There is also chaos within the management company Ray works for.  His boss, David (Zachary Quinto), has been told to freeze all expense accounts, and the company is being reorganized to benefit from other revenue streams while the NBA and the players association continue to haggle over money.  It’s clear there are many more people involved in all of this who depend on the NBA operating at a peak performance level than just the players and owners.  And Ray’s job seems to be on the line as well, given his clients are all NBA stars, meaning he is not bringing in any business.  The first casualty of this is the transfer of his long time assistant, Sam (Zazie Beetz), to another department, which leaves him mulling his next move.

     Soderbergh takes a hard look at these issues by asking some very serious questions about the arrangement between owners and players.  In doing so, he utilizes a character named Spence (Bill Duke), who runs a basketball program at a community center and was a long time NBA player himself.  The questions raised include the notion of white team owners who unfairly utilize the players in a mostly black league for their own monetary gain, and do so with unprecedented control over the players via clearly spelled out restrictions in their contracts, as well as the collective bargaining agreement.  Essentially what he’s saying is players not only must give up the rights to their likeness, but they are limited in their ability to sell themselves as a brand.  In essence, the argument is the player’s star power on and off the court benefit the NBA, rather than benefiting the player.  

     All of this plays out around a publicity stunt set up by Ray, as the various entities involved haggle over percentages and who gets the bigger slice of the pie with revenues increasing after lucrative broadcast deals.  Back and forth between the player’s association and the owners is depicted through scenes where the union’s attorney, Myra (Sonja Sohn), debates with the owner’s representative, David Seton (Kyle MacLachlan), as the two seem unlikely to bend and work towards an agreement.  Meanwhile, the players are out of work and not being paid, which leads to them looking for other means to support themselves by using their basketball talents, something the league does not want to see.

     Now the fact “High Flying Bird” is shot on an iPhone shouldn’t indicate the film lacks in standard production value.  It is in fact a marvel artistically with seemingly every shot carefully composed in the exact same way a film would be had it been shot with a high end camera.  And the story succeeds in its quest to ask hard questions about a system that may very well be rigged to ensure every NBA franchise continues to rise exponentially in value, even if it means continuing to hold the players back from creating their own businesses based on their own star power.  In an interesting and quite effective twist, Soderbergh includes documentary style interviews with real life NBA players Karl-Anthony Towns, Donovan Mitchell, and Reggie Jackson who speak about their experiences as rookies in the league.  Their words play meaningfully into the story as we see Erick Scott struggle with his place in all of this when his expectations of the beginning of his career are reduced to just sitting around and waiting while the wealthy owners of the league ensure their bottom line remains the ultimate priority.  GRADE: B+

“What Men Want” Movie Review


     It was only a matter of time.  A no brainer if you will.  Maybe it took a little longer than once thought, but the script has been flipped on Nancy Meyer’s 2000 hit comedy “What Women Want”, bringing a female into Mel Gibson’s role and thus giving her the ability to hear what men are thinking internally.  And don’t tell Taraji P. Henson she’s being utilized here to fill someone else’s shoes, as she absolutely owns this role in every way, perhaps even making Gibson’s performance a distant memory in the process.  Working from script by Tina Gordon, Peter Huyck, and Alex Gregory, director Adam Shankman changes much of the dynamic from the original, but still places Henson in a position of secondary power, though she is aiming for a big promotion, amongst a male dominated workplace she struggles to get along with.

     Strangely enough, this is the third time in just under a year where a female lead character hits her head hard enough to create some kind of otherworldly experience meant as social commentary.  In addition to Henson’s Ali Davis, who after an interesting session with a psychic ends up gaining her ability to hear men’s thoughts when she abruptly smashes her head on a table while dancing at a nightclub, there was Amy Schumer hitting her's during a cycling class in “I Feel Pretty”, and it appears Rebel Wilson will do something similar in the upcoming “Isn’t It Romantic”.  Nonetheless, the story moves along with a consistent and welcome comedic beat set to Henson’s ability to deliver sharp, witty dialogue accompanied by raucous physical comedy.

     Ali Davis (Henson) is a sports agent working for a sports management firm comprised of mostly male counterparts.  And while she boasts an impressive client list of several notable female olympic athletes, she has been continually passed over in becoming a partner due to the lack of signing true superstar talent within the big four professional sports leagues.  In an opening scene, she still believes she is about to achieve her goal in a board room ceremony where the next partner is about to be named.  The company boss, Nick (Brian Bosworth), tosses a ceremonial football to the new partner and with Ali thinking its her, she catches the ball, only to be told it was directed at the guy sitting next to her.

     After the latest setback in her career, she is told if she could get the top college basketball prospect in the country, Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie), to sign with her and the company, it would potentially guarantee she becomes a partner.  Flanked by her assistant, Brandon (Josh Brener, Big Head from HBO’s “Silicon Valley” doing his best Gary impersonation from “Veep”), the duo sets out to meet Jamal and his flamboyant Lavar Ball caricature of a father Joe “Dolla” Barry (Tracy Morgan) during a photo shoot that doesn’t go as planned, leaving Ali to wonder what it takes to land a client of this stature.  Of course, we the audience have an idea since it’s shortly thereafter Ali is suddenly gifted with a power that proves to be quite handy within these male ego infused scenarios.

     There are a number of hilarious bits Shankman comes up with, each of which utilize cameo appearances from several notable sports stars who are no stranger to captivating audiences with their larger than life personas.  An all male poker game Ali finds herself in the middle of includes Joe Barry, but also Shaquille O’Neal, Mark Cuban, and Grant Hill.  And with her new found ability to hear each of their ongoing thoughts, it doesn’t prove difficult to clean house if she chooses, but she also sees an opportunity.  Add to this a budding love interest in Will (Aldis Hodge), and his very cute 6 year old son, Ben (Auston Jon Moore), who owns the line of the movie with his “Welcome to Wakanda” while utilizing Ali’s underwear as a mask, and you have the recipe for an all out comedy sure to end with the usual sentimental touches.

     Though all of this leads to a formulaic narrative, the film earns its laughs from a very game cast who no doubt gave their all in order to ensure “What Men Want” would stand tall next to its predecessor.  And while Henson clearly carries the film, she works well along side Brener as he makes a welcome transition from the small to big screen.  Meanwhile, Morgan is absolutely hilarious with his helicopter dad impersonation and clearly makes a gargantuan effort to steal every scene he appears in.  The only curious bit of casting is that of Shane Paul McGhie as a basketball player being sold as the next phenom and number one pick in the NBA draft.  Problem is, he doesn’t seem to have the kind of over the top skills necessary to sell himself as a high level player (one scene in particular between him and Henson on an outdoor court did not exude someone with the kind of talent to play in the NBA).  This would’ve been a great opportunity to cast an actual NBA player in the role, but in reality, the film isn’t about him so they get away with it.

     Of course, neither this film nor the Mel Gibson/Helen Hunt version really ever answer the question both titles ask.  And that’s because there is no answer.  After all these years, we have yet to really figure each other out.  But it would be cool (and quite helpful) to finally know exactly what you’re thinking.  GRADE: B-

“The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” Movie Review


     Writer/ Director Henry Dunham’s feature debut, “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek”, is a stunning and brilliant achievement worthy of being touted as the first great film of 2019.  And while it is certain there will be many more, it would be a massive disservice to forget the film when best of lists are being compiled at the end of the year.  Working with a budget of less then $500K, the film takes place within the claustrophobic confines of a large lumber warehouse and is populated with a cast comprised of seasoned veteran character actors that most casual movie watchers likely won’t recognize.  But the tension Dunham and this group manage to create, working from a fantastic script by Dunham as well, rivals the very best thrillers of the past decade, while also managing to create several unique twists of its own.

     The easy comparison here would be Tarantino’s 1991 classic “Reservoir Dogs”, but look deeper and you’re likely to find similarities within another genre entirely.  Essentially, what Dunham has created, with his men trapped in small spaces scenario, is something more akin to Ridley Scott’s “Alien” or John Carpenter’s “The Thing”, but without the monster.  Although with these characters, many of them certainly could qualify for such a distinction.  Nearly every scene is lit with a semi bright key light illuminating the actor’s faces from only one direction, leaving the rest of their silhouette shrouded in darkness.  People can appear and you didn’t know they were there, while others just walk away mid conversation without the audience knowing.  All of this plays to important aspects of a plot torn directly out of today’s headlines.

     When we first meet Gannon (James Badge Dale), he’s deep in the woods lying hidden within some brush and concealed behind a tree.  With a rifle and scope, he has a deer in his sights.  We don’t see him pull the trigger, but the next shot indicates he bagged his prey, as we catch up with him at his seemingly middle of nowhere trailer.  As he’s eating dinner alone, he hears automatic gunfire repeating in the distance.  Soon after, he gets a call to meet at the Sparrow Creek lumber yard from the leader of the militia he belongs to.  The message is one of urgency.

     Gannon is an ex-cop who now toils away with a small militia in Northern Michigan.  I found this interesting since a memorable segment in Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” features interviews with a couple of these sloppy out of shape whack jobs who spend their days training like soldiers just in case they may need to stop the government from taking away their arms, or something like that.  And in that exact vein we have a group of seedy looking individuals show up at the lumber warehouse to find out what has happened.

     Off camera, a lone gunman has committed a mass shooting at a police funeral.  The murderous monster was said to have fired hundreds of rounds with an assault rifle, and employed the use of IEDs hidden amongst the grave stones in order to maximize casualties which is said to have been nearly everyone attending the service.  Through listening to the police radio, the group realizes that the local militias are the prime suspects, and Ford (Chris Mulkey), the group’s leader, has called a meeting to find out if the suspect is among them.  Complicating matters is the fact one of the AR-15 assault rifles from the militia’s armory is missing, and everyone who has the code to that armory is now in the room.

     Because of his background as a cop, Ford charges Gannon with interrogating the prime suspects in the group, who are made up of confessed murderers, former members of the Aryan Nation, and prototypical anti social types who scream serial killer just by their mere presence.  If you’re familiar with police interrogation techniques, the dialogue in these scenes will be quite intriguing to you, as you’ll right away pick up on Gannon’s methods in an effort to gain confessions from the militia’s most obvious suspects.  Beyond this, the group finds themselves unable to leave the lumber yard, as it is now being reported via police radio that several militias have completed coordinated attacks throughout the United States.  The mistrust then begins to brew within, as each begins to wonder what the other knows and isn’t telling them.

     Dunham’s team proves top notch with outstanding work from Director of Photography Jackson Hunt, Production Designer Adam Dietrich, and Editor Josh Ethier, creating a dark, gritty, atmosphere for the actors to thrive in.  And all of this is accomplished without a single note of musical score to support it.  When you think about the limited indie budget, as well as the shooting schedule said to have been only 18 days, it’s astounding what the filmmakers were able to create with such limited resources.

     Perhaps even more compelling is the narrative being centered around a mass shooting and the use of an assault rifle equipped with a bump stock serving as the primary means of the attack, particularly given the many recent events in our country.  A plot point made even more shocking when we begin to realize the make up of this militia, as it features several members who would qualify as having the background and personality traits of a poster child for a mass murderer.  At a certain point in the film, you’d likely believe it could have been any one of them. A testament to the superb performances by the supporting cast that includes Brian Geraghty (“The Hurt Locker”), Patrick Fischler (“Mad Men”), Happy Anderson (“Bright”), Robert Aramayo (“Nocturnal Animals”, “Game of Thrones”) , and Gene Jones (“The Hateful Eight”).  As for Dunham, “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” announces his successful arrival into feature filmmaking and assures his growing audience will no doubt be looking forward to his next project.  GRADE: A