OUTLAW KING (2018)

November 10, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Much was made of the ‘artistic license’ director Mel Gibson took in creating his own version of historical events and actions of William Wallace for his Oscar-winning BRAVEHEART (1995). Director David Mackenzie (in his follow up to the excellent HELL OR HIGH WATER, 2016) pays a bit more attention to historical details as he picks up the story at the end of Wallace’s rebellion – and the beginning of the uprising led by Robert the Bruce.

Chris Pine plays Robert the Bruce, a man forced to pledge loyalty to Kind Edward I and England prior to leading the rebellion. It’s the year 1304 and director Mackenzie’s opening sequence is a several minute long tracking shot that is simply superb. It features our introduction to Robert the Bruce (Pine), King Edward I (Stephen Dillane) and Prince Edward (Billy Howle, ON CHESIL BEACH), as well as an early swordfight and an eye-popping fireball shot from an enormous catapult into the protective wall of a distant castle.

Not long after, we learn William Wallace has been killed, the King has provided Robert the Bruce a wife in Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh, LADY MACBETH) and Robert  takes the life of fellow Scotsman John Comyn … an act that costs him dearly in the early going. However, it does lead to his being named King of Scots by the Church, and he slowly begins to build his forces. Of course, Scotland’s forces are always dwarfed in numbers by that of the English Empire, but never in spirit.

Pine plays Robert the Bruce as the strong, (mostly) silent leader, while Howle and Aaron Taylor-Johnson cross into camp in their respective portrayals of Prince Edward (yet another wide-eyed son intent on making his father proud) and James Douglas (a manic, crazy-eyed Scotsman bent on revenge). Ms. Pugh brings courage and a headstrong nature to Elizabeth (in far too limited a role), while Mr. Dillane shows us a worn down King Edward I who gets the film’s best line … “I am so sick of Scotland!”

The two words of the title are actually separated by a slash in the opening credits; a device meant to emphasize the dual sides to the man and his actions. In addition to that opening long shot, there is a visually stunning sequence of a nighttime raid on a camp site. Unfortunately after that, we get mostly mud and blood, including the pivotal Battle of Loudon Hill which features the ultimate in home field advantage. There are some terrific costumes and set pieces, but mostly it’s elaborate and detailed moviemaking (with a few downright silly moments) that never fully clicks. Perhaps that’s a factor of having 5 different writers involved. With many familiar faces from “Game of Thrones”, it will be interesting to see how this plays on laptops and TVs via Netflix. Another Robert the Bruce film is scheduled for theatrical release in 2019, and the inevitable comparison will be made at that time.

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VENOM (2018)

October 4, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. For those movie-goers who believe there is no need for another comic book movie, you now have People’s Exhibit A. This is the 5th Marvel film of 2018 (yep, that’s a new one every other month!), and it’s the first one proving challenging to say much of anything that is positive or complimentary.

It should be noted that this is not a Superhero movie, but rather a film based on the Marvel Comic characters and stories of Todd McFarlane and David Michelinie. Four writers are credited with the screenplay, and it seems they either needed more or fewer. Director Ruben Fleisher (ZOMBIELAND, 2009) apparently worked with what he was given, hoping the stellar cast or the CGI could salvage the project.

The always terrific Tom Hardy (Bane in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES) stars as Eddie Brock, a renowned investigative reporter popular for breaking stories of corruption and fraud. Unfortunately, he has a significant lapse in ethics – an unusually forthright comment from Hollywood on today’s media. This lapse costs Brock his job, his girlfriend (4 time Oscar nominee Michelle Williams), and any semblance of normalcy. While investigating the unimaginable human-alien experiments of megalomaniac Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), Brock takes on the powers of the symbiote (Venom) and spends the rest of the movie either trying to control these powers, sitting back and letting the powers take over, or exchanging frat boy dialogue with the possessive being who picked up all nuances of the English language pretty darn quickly.

Venom was last seen in the lackluster SPIDER-MAN 3 and was played by Topher Grace. This time out, Venom is the focus and Spidey is nowhere to be found or mentioned … at least not until post credits (a terrific animated sequence). The CGI is at times very impressive – reminiscent of something John Carpenter might have ordered. Two sides of the Transamerica Pyramid provide a nice visual, however, the effects are not at all consistent. Far too often … especially the battle between Venom and Riot …it’s just plain messy (like letting a group of toddlers play with black and gray slime).

The film’s saving grace could have been the interactions between Mr. Hardy and Ms. Williams, both stellar actors, but the dialogue and situations are so ridiculous that even those scenes don’t click. The moments that draw laughter from the audience may or may not have been by design, but there are far too many ‘forced comedic moments’ that just fall flat.

Composer Ludwig Goransson (CREED, BLACK PANTHER) delivers some nice moments with the score, but the Eminem song over the closing credits sounds amateurish. The film is very loud, and not so much lacking direction as it is burdened with too many directions and misfires. A comic book movie’s first priority is to be fun, and this one just isn’t much of that. Surprisingly, the film is rated PG-13 rather than R, so the excessive violence (and there is plenty) never actually spills a drop of blood. Perhaps the goal was to make a Marvel movie so uninspiring that BLACK PANTHER’s Oscar chances would be enhanced.  Otherwise, there’s no excuse.

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MILE 22 (2018)

August 16, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. I like secrets too!  By definition, information is scarce on these teams, so Secret Ops units are perfect fodder for intrigue, espionage, and geopolitical action flicks. A fictional account of an elite paramilitary unit chasing down Russian spies is not only timely, but also timeless. Director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg are back for their 4th testosterone-laced collaboration. Their previous work included PATRIOTS DAY, DEEPWATER HORIZON, and LONE SURVIVOR, each with an element of truth to their story. Not so with their latest … at least we hope not.

Mark Wahlberg stars as Mark Wahlberg, er… James Silva, a child prodigy with anger issues who has grown into a military intelligence prodigy with anger issues and a rubber band. Silva snaps the rubber band on his wrist when his impatience bubbles up as those around him can’t keep up with his rapid-fire thinking. The only thing that works faster than Silva’s brain is his motor-mouth filled with cryptic cuts and curses. Lest you think this is another men’s only club, writers Lea Carpenter and Graham Roland have blessed us with two female action figures. One is played by MMA star Ronda Rousey. She is given little to do here. The other is Lauren Cohan (“The Walking Dead”) who, as team member Alice Kerr, has much to do – even beyond the absentee-mommy guilt burdening her.

Carlo Alban plays another member of the elite squad, while John Malkovich plays “Mother”, the flat-top toupeed control center leader … you knew there had to be an ultra-high-tech lair staffed with computer nerds. Since Wahlberg spends most of the movie yelling, and Cohan battles her estranged husband (Peter Berg cameo) over Skype, the most interesting character is Li Noor, played by Iko Uwais (THE RAID). Uwais brings a Bruce Lee quality to the film with an incredible hospital room fight scene, as well as a few other sequences that will have you marvel at his abilities.

Intensity and tension and violence and gun play and fighting and chase scenes are jam-packed into a relatively short run time, but the opening sequence is the closest thing we get to something that fits into a well-written espionage thriller. The team sets up a raid on a Russian FSB suburban safe house. Things get twisted, and the final kill ends with “you’re making a mistake”. The film then jumps ahead two years to the Overwatch team reassembling in Southeast Asia for a mission to transport Li Noor to an airfield 22 miles away. See, he holds the information regarding dirty bombs that can either save or cost thousands of lives.

The film features a framing device with Silva being debriefed after the mission. He is explaining why they do the important work they do and why they did the important work they did and why it’s important that we understand the work is important. There is government bashing and military cheerleading, but mostly the interview acts as a respite between violent action sequences. The film plays so much like a video game that each ticket should come with a joystick. If after watching this, you need more, you’ll be pleased to know there’s a cheesy line at the end that tees up the sequel … and don’t worry, director Berg and Mr. Wahlberg are already in pre-production for their fifth film.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT

July 25, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Welcome back Ethan Hunt, and the other members of IMF. This is the 6th film in the franchise born (not Bourne) from the classic TV series (1966-73) created by Bruce Geller (credited in each film). Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie returns for this companion piece to his 2015 MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE ROGUE NATION, as of course does mega-star Tom Cruise as the aforementioned Ethan Hunt.

Hunt’s team of Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames) returns, as does really really bad guy Solomon Lane (a glowering Sean Hayes), and MI6 agent Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson). New to the scene is Agent August Walker (Henry Cavill, MAN OF STEEL), a hulking hunk of a man who doesn’t share Ethan’s belief in brainy strategy. Speaking of strategy, I was a bit tricky in inviting a friend to the screening who is in the midst of a years long boycott of Alec Baldwin movies. Although I felt a fleeting twinge of guilt, I believe the payoff was such that it lessened the impact of deception. Also appearing are Angela Bassett as a CIA toughie, Michelle Monaghan, Wes Bentley, and Vanessa Kirby (“The Crown”) as White Widow.

Most fans of this franchise have likely accepted that the stories are overly intricate – this one is unnecessarily jumbled – and they just enjoy the clamorous ride to an ending that typically has something to do with a bomb and saving the world. It’s the action and stunts that drive ticket sales, and this one has the most extreme and over-the-top action sequences we’ve seen yet. Even though there is a familiarity to some, the stunts are still quite impressive; and yes, Mr. Cruise, now in his mid-50’s, still performs his own stunts. This includes the leap between buildings where he actually suffered a broken ankle, shutting down production for a few months. The jump where he was injured is included in the film. And fear not, the Cruise Sprint is in full force on numerous occasions. Sadly, there is also a quick shot of a Ving Rhames jog – nothing but painful to watch.

The film opens with a wedding day nightmare, but quickly moves to what the fans want – globetrotting, chase scenes, slick advanced technology and wacky stunts. The streets, bridges and landmarks of Paris are on full and spectacular display, while the chase scenes occur on foot, on motorcycle, in cars, and in helicopters. Crazy stunts include HALO jumping, rock climbing and dangling from an elevator shaft. There is a relentless brawl scene in a men’s room where Hunt gets face planted into a porcelain sink and thrown through a wall … and thanks to the magic of Hollywood, five minutes later, he has nary a scratch and looks as debonair as James Bond ever has. However, it’s the final helicopter sequence through the mountains and cliffs of Kashmir that provide the signature moments of the film. Even with the nod to JURASSIC PARK, it’s a breathtaking scene.

Running nearly 2 ½ hours, this is the longest of the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE films, and Ethan Hunt remains, along with Maverick in TOP GUN (sequel filming now), the best fit for Tom Cruise the actor and celebrity. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for Henry Cavill. He’s blessed with extraordinary genes – just not the thespian types. Filled with double and triple and quad crossings, whether you can follow the story or not, only the most stoic would claim you will find this anything less than an adrenaline rush … should you decide to accept. Plus, it still features one of the best theme songs ever – especially powerful with today’s phenomenal theatre sound systems. Thanks Lalo Schifrin.

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ANT-MAN AND THE WASP (2018)

July 4, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The mystery of why Ant-Man was not involved with the battle for the galaxy in AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR has been solved as director Peyton Reed returns to helm the sequel to his 2015 hit ANT-MAN. The reason is very simple: Scott Lang/Ant-Man was under house arrest for his role in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. Yep, an ankle monitor sidelined this superhero for the biggest, baddest clash with Thanos. Somehow, this seems fitting for the most “normal” and grounded of all the Marvel characters, as Scott (Paul Rudd) is just a guy trying to overcome his petty thief tendencies while becoming a better father.

The story picks up two years after “Civil War” and Scott has only 3 days of house arrest remaining. An unusual “dream” is the cause of his reluctant reunion with Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hank’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly). A remarkable laboratory (quite the sight-gag), that could also be carry-on luggage, is the source of Hank and Hope’s mission to bring back mother Janet (the original Wasp, Michelle Pfeiffer) from the Quantum Realm.

It’s at this point, if you are a Marvel Universe fan, that you might ask yourself … so the story is about trying to save one person who has been gone for 30 years?  Yes, that’s a bit less pressure than being charged with saving the galaxy, which is common occurrence in other Marvel films. Look, this isn’t rocket science. Umm, well, it’s quantum physics, which is way more complicated … but the point is, Ant-Man is the Marvel fluff piece. Its purpose is to be light-hearted and entertaining, rather than burdensome and ominous.

There may not be an overabundance of depth to the story, but it is overflowing with entertainment value. There are four new writers (along with Mr. Rudd) for this sequel, and they offer up a nice blend of personal redemption, crazy action sequences, and heart-felt emotion. The villains aren’t even all that bad. Walton Goggins (“Justified”) is Sonny, a greedy dude who just wants the other-worldly Pym technology, and Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) is after that same technology, but only for self-preservation. Her own molecules are separating, causing a fast track to death – despite the help of Hank’s old partner, played by Laurence Fishburne.

The age-reversing effects we saw on Michael Douglas in the first ANT-MAN are also used this time on Mr. Fishburne and Ms. Pfeiffer. It’s quite something to behold. Michael Pena returns as Scott’s motor-mouthed partner, and he displays some pure comic genius in the truth serum scene. Randall Park plays the hapless FBI agent in charge of keeping track of Scott, but it’s Abby Ryder Fortson as Scott’s daughter Cassie who steals every one of her scenes … and possibly sets the stage for the Ant-Man franchise to carry on to the next generation.

Only a certain level of seriousness can be attained for a movie that blasts “The Partridge Family” theme song “Come On, Get Happy”. Or that awards Paul Rudd with a certain trophy designation. Or that has a character scream “You got Pezzed!”. However, a level of respect is earned with some terrific action – giant and tiny – as well as an exceedingly creative chase scene through the streets of San Francisco. There is a post-credit stinger that ties the film into AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR. It’s brilliant, but also caused quite the outburst from my fellow viewers. If you enjoy playful and amusing (and you should), then the team of Ant-Man and The Wasp (comedian and straight man/person) will put a smile on your face – just watch out for the seagulls!

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JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM (2018)

June 29, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. While I will never tire of seeing really cool dinosaurs on the big screen, I’ll probably never avoid frustration from a poorly written and poorly acted film. On the bright side, I got to see this at the Grand Opening of the beautiful new Alamo Drafthouse in Denton, Texas. A 66 foot curved screen with the best available sound system made the dinosaurs that much more impressive, while simultaneously exposing the acting for the disappointment it is … especially the almost impossible to watch Bryce Dallas Howard.

J.A. Bayona directs this follow up to the 2015 JURASSIC WORLD, but he’s saddled with a subpar script from the writers and director of that previous entry, Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow. The creatures of the late, great Michael Crichton deserve better. In addition to the aforementioned Ms. Howard (as Claire Dearing), Chris Pratt also returns as the smirking Owen Grady, and this time he flashes some fighting skills that would make Jean-Claude Van Damme proud. Not sure how his experience training baby dinosaurs and building a cabin in the mountains prepared him to single handedly take on an army of armed mercenaries, but such things are possible in a cartoon … which is exactly what this plays like: a live action cartoon with high dollar special effects.

We have a spoof of a villain in Eli Mills, played by an over-the-top Rafe Spall, a quivering techie played by Justice Smith (PAPER TOWNS), a tough Paleo vet in Daniela Pineda (MR ROOSEVELT), a dying billionaire former partner of John Hammond played by James Cromwell, a greedy capitalist who should be twirling a mustache in Toby Jones, a big-gun toting badass by Ted Levine, and a good-hearted housekeeper played by Geraldine Chaplin. Mr. Cromwell and Ms. Chaplin add a touch of class in their all too brief scenes. BD Wong is back doing things with dino DNA, and sadly, Jeff Goldblum probably filmed his two courtroom scenes in a couple of hours. One nice addition is young Isabella Sermon, in her screen debut. She is part of the only decent twist in the story.

Despite the disappointments, it remains awe-inspiring to see the dinosaurs on screen. If only those moments weren’t ruined by such superfluous bits such as a close up of Ms. Howard’s footwear to prove that she’s not wearing high heels in the jungle this time. Director Bayona has three very fine movies under his belt: THE ORPHANAGE (2007), THE IMPOSSIBLE (2012), and A MONSTER CALLS (2016). He’s likely to make more good films during his career, and this will surely be a box office smash because people love seeing the dinosaurs, and are willing to overlook the people. As a frequent movie goer, I’m just unable to cut slack to a mega-budget film that expects us to overlook shoddy writing and laughable acting. We don’t expect to recapture the (25 years ago) magic of Steven Spielberg and composer John Williams in the stunning JURASSIC PARK, but we do expect a better effort than this.

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INCREDIBLES 2 (2018)

June 12, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. In 2004 THE INCREDIBLES became the 6th Pixar film in a row to dominate the box office, and also the 6th straight to “WOW” us with a combination of animation, story, action and characters. All these years later, Brad Bird, the creative force behind the original, is back with the much anticipated sequel. Mr. Bird’s career over those years has featured a blend of other animation (RATATOUILLE, 2007) and live-action (MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL).

Bird is not the only returnee for the sequel. Also back is the entire Parr Family: Holly Hunter as Elastigirl/Helen/Mom, Craig T Nelson as Mr. Incredible/Bob/Dad, Sarah Vowell as Violet, Huck Milner as Dash, and Eli Fucile as baby Jack Jack. The story picks up not long after the original ended. “Supers” have been outlawed, and the Parrs are in some type of Super Protection Program – similar to Witness Protection. Of course when one is a superhero, doing the right thing just comes naturally, and the opening scene finds them battling their old nemesis Underminer (voiced by Pixar good luck charm John Ratzenberger, who voices a character in each of the studio’s films). Our heroes stop the crime, but cause significant damage to the city. This leads to our first social commentary when the powers that be scold the Parrs and inform them that the banks have insurance, and it’s cheaper to let the criminals get away so that the damage is minimized.

As superheroes non-grata, the Parrs try to go “straight” and live a normal life. That is until a powerful brother and sister corporate duo offer a proposal. Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) and Evelyn Deavor (twist that pronunciation just a bit, voiced by Catherine Keener) want to generate a PR plan to help rebuild the reputation of supers. The idea is to make Elastigirl the public face of the program by having her wear a body cam to show off her heroic deeds (in this age of ‘pics or it didn’t happen’). She’s chosen over Mr. Incredible for economic reasons, and he’s relegated to stay-at-home parent (or as we called Michael Keaton in 1983, MR. MOM – an unacceptable sexist term these days).

Elastigirl enjoys her time in the limelight, while Bob doesn’t much like being just Bob. Plus he can’t understand why they changed math, as he gets frustrated trying to help Dash with his homework. He’s also challenged with Violet’s teen angst over a boy, and even moreso over the discovery that Jack Jack has POWERS! In fact, Jack Jack has multiple powers, but as a baby, he has little control – though his battle with a raccoon is not a segment you’ll soon forget.

Also returning is Frozone – voiced by Samuel L. Jackson (minus his trademark “MF’er), and costume designer Edna Mode – voiced by director Bird. Other new voices include (Odenkirk’s fellow “Better Call Saul” castmate) Jonathan Banks as Rick Dicker, Isabella Rossellini as the Ambassador, and Sophia Bush as Voyd, one of the new generation supers (which includes Reflux – one you’ll just have to experience).

The big new villain causing problems for Elastigirl is ScreenSlaver, who hypnotizes large groups of people through their screens – more social commentary on our dependence on technology and the addiction/affliction we have toward device screens. The flood of superhero movies over the years since THE INCREDIBLES exposes the not-so-complex story in this one, but it’s terrific that the film keeps much of the original look and feel, and yet brings something new … baby Jack Jack is a star!

Filled with the beautiful colors and art design we’ve come to take for granted from Pixar, the film also features some of the best action sequences you’ll see in any movie. The train sequence with Elastigirl is simply spectacular – as is the final action sequence. It’s also nice to see the flip in gender roles as Mom (Holly Hunter) takes the lead. Michael Giacchino returns as the composer and he blends in a touch of James Bond theme with his wonderful work. If the film needed extra credit (which it doesn’t), certainly the inclusion of a “Jonny Quest” clip would qualify. Family films don’t get much better than this, and even though it runs 2 hours, the closing credits feature the theme song for each of the superheroes, and could easily have been a short film unto itself.

Speaking of short films, a Pixar tradition is to include one before new releases. This time it’s BAO, a Chinese mother/son and food-oriented story from director Domee Shi (animator on INSIDE OUT)

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