UNDERWATER (2020)

January 10, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The opening credits have an “X-Files” look and feel. Newspaper headlines and redacted reports zip by … in fact, the rapid cuts are so quick that very few viewers will be able to keep up. Even if you haven’t finished your Evelyn Woods speed-reading course, the gist is clear: there is a (very) deep-water drilling lab located 36,000 feet below the ocean’s surface. Yep, that’s almost 7 miles deep for the crew of 316, and some mysterious bad things may or may not be lurking. That’s really our only set-up … unless you want to count Kristen Stewart brushing her teeth.

It’s literally less than 5 minutes in when the rig is rocked by an explosion of some kind. We are told the structure is 70% damaged. The survivors are quickly identified. Nora (Ms. Stewart) and Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie) are together in the immediate aftermath. Nora is a mechanical engineer and computer whiz. They soon come across a co-worker buried in rubble. It’s wise-cracking TJ Miller and his (actual) stuffed bunny. Next up are the Captain (Vincent Cassel) and lovebirds Emily (Jessica Henwick) and Smith (John Gallagher Jr). With no time for early character development, we learn tidbits as their perilous journey hopefully leads them towards rescue. Of course anyone who has ever watched a movie can tell you, they won’t all make it. Maybe the 8 year old girl sitting in the row behind me wouldn’t know that … but no parent should take their 8 year old to a PG-13 movie that has “terror” in the parental warnings.

Director William Eubank and co-writers Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad create plenty of tension, danger and suspense. The movie is at its best when they let the moment speak. It’s the dialogue that is mostly cringe-worthy, as well as the predictable and unnecessary jump-scares. These people are stranded miles deep in the ocean and are running out of oxygen and options … and are being chased by something they can’t identify. The visual effects are successful in generating the environment of danger and claustrophobia.

It’s in the little things where the film falters. When we first see the Captain, he has his arm in a sling. He’s obviously injured. Once the bulky underwater suits are donned, his bad arm seems just fine … he’s even pulling one of the others with a rope! Nora makes a big deal about being the “smallest” of the group and volunteers to explore a narrow passage. The problem is that they are all wearing the same suits – a fact that should negate any advantage of Ms., Stewart’s slim, toned body. Lastly, the film has borrowed heavily from James Cameron’s classic ALIEN. In fact, it has been referred to as “Underwater Alien”. Of course, this film isn’t nearly as well-rounded or complete as that one … but then few are.

Mr. Eubank’s film is a sci-fi/horror mash-up, but it’s really more a survival thriller than science fiction or creature feature, although the sea creatures have their moments. Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli does a nice job in keeping with the ‘play it straight’ approach, and his camera work is complemented by the electronic score from Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts. Ms. Stewart and her buzzed blond hair hold their own amidst the danger. A blatant lecture about how we are going places (deep sea) we shouldn’t go and doing things (drilling) we shouldn’t do is included for those who might not figure it out on their own, but mostly we spend our time trying to figure out how to survive the deep sea pressure with little oxygen and no escape pods. Just leave the 8-year olds at home.

watch the trailer:


STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (2019)

December 18, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ending the final trilogy of trilogies that covers 42 years of storytelling, was never going to be easy. And, given the rabid fan base’s backlash from the penultimate episode, the ending was unlikely to appease all (or even most?).  Keeping respectful of the sensitivity associated with this franchise, no spoilers are included here, certainly nothing that hasn’t already been dissected and debated after the trailers were released.

As I approached the theatre, it was impossible not to chuckle at the irony of seeing the life-sized marketing prop for KNIVES OUT in the lobby. Of course, that current release is directed by Rian Johnson, who caused such an uproar with the aforementioned STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (Episode VIII), a franchise entry that happens to be one of my personal favorites. But we are here for Episode IX, the wrap-up of George Lucas’ masterful vision. JJ Abrams (STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS) is back in the director’s chair, and knowing what a fanboy he is, it’s not surprising to see the familiarity and tributes to the franchise interjected throughout.

In fact, this finale leans heavily on nostalgia and humor, while tying up most loose ends – as well as some that weren’t even all that loose. Writers Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow (originally slated to direct), Chris Terrio, and Abrams seemed intent on giving each beloved character their moment, as a sign of appreciation for their contributions to a legacy that covers a period longer than the lifespan of some of the biggest Star Wars fans. As one who stood in line in 1977, it’s an approach that I respect and have no problems with – knowing full well that some will.

Any attempt to tie up previous threads must focus on the odd, mystical relationship between Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Rey (Daisy Ridley). Both are still conflicted and attempting to come to grips with who they are. Rey especially is struggling with her identity and roots. One of my favorite elements from The Last Jedi was inner-head conversations blended with cross-dimensional physical interactions between Kylo and Rey, and it’s used beautifully here.

So, the biggest complaint from me is that despite its nearly two-and-a-half hour run time, there is simply too much crammed in. Too much story and too many characters and too many things that get a glimpse or mention, but no real development. This movie is jam-packed, and ‘convoluted’ would not be too strong of a word to describe. There are times we aren’t sure where the characters are or what they are doing or why they are doing it. We do know that everything good is dependent on ‘this mission’, a mission that seems to change direction about every 12 minutes. In fact, the “new” players – Rey, Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) – spend very little time together on screen. And really, Finn is given almost nothing to do except look worried most of the time. On the bright side for characters, Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and C3PO both get their own sub-plots. Anthony Daniels (as C3PO) becomes the only actor to appear in all 9 episodes, although R2D2 joins C3PO as characters appearing in all.

There are many old familiar faces, both good and evil. Some of these play key roles, while others are brief cameos. Much has been speculated about how Carrie Fisher’s role as Leia will be handled. Archival footage, combined with special effects and camera angles, allows her to be present throughout, and yes, she gets the send-off she deserves. There are even some new characters/creatures introduced, including a cute new droid (never underestimate or under-market a droid) that is already for sale in Disney stores.

No matter one’s feelings or expectations, an area that surely will not disappoint is the visual effects. Somehow, this one is even more impressive and awe-inspiring than the others. In particular, a couple of scenes filmed in and around an angry sea left me dumbfounded, mouth-agape. However, what’s most amazing is the consistency of the visuals throughout. It’s just a stunning film to look at.  Some of the story may be a bit confusing or cheesy, but some parts of the film are truly great. Cinematographer and Special Effects guru Dan Mindel deserves special mention, as do Production Designers Rick Carter and Kevin Jenkins. Of course the visual effects team is without peer – and take up about 5 minutes in the closing credits.

Lastly, composer John Williams gets to add his well-deserved personal stamp on this final chapter with new work added to the already iconic score. Very few moments compare to the opening notes blasting away on the theatre sound system as a Star Wars film begins. And as much as we’d like to treat this as the end, we all know Disney will find a way to keep us interested in a galaxy, far far away.

RIP: Peter Mayhew and Carrie Fisher

watch the trailer:

 


GEMINI MAN (2019)

October 10, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Usually after watching a movie, I spend some time thinking about the story, the performances, the visual effects, the music, the sets, the costumes, and any other piece of the puzzle that makes up that particular movie going experience. However, Oscar winning director Ang Lee’s (BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, LIFE OF PI) new film creates a challenge. In addition to those previously mentioned factors, the ground-breaking new technology must also be addressed – both separately and in conjunction with how it works in the movie.

If you’ve seen the trailer, or even the poster, you know that there is an “old” Will Smith and a “young” Will Smith. The basic story is that Henry Brogan (old Will Smith) is a retiring DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) assassin who is being hunted by his own government. The one doing the hunting is Junior, a “young” clone of Henry Brogan. What you may not know is that this is not accomplished through the typical de-aging process that has become so popular in Hollywood. Nope, this Junior is actually digital animation from Weta Digital in New Zealand. It’s not even really Will Smith – it’s a digital creation that looks almost identical to the Will Smith from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” (1990-96), minus the wide grin and funky clothes. It’s very impressive technology, but not yet to the point where it can replace living, breathing, emoting actors. However, it’s pretty obvious that day is coming.

What’s also obvious is that this script is a mess, and despite the new generation of technology, this film seems dated … well at least the story seems that way. Darren Lemke (SHAZAM!) first published the screenplay in the mid-1990’s and it has “almost” made it to production on a few occasions. Writers David Benioff (THE KITE RUNNER) and Billy Ray (CAPTAIN PHILLIPS) are credited on this final, mostly disappointing version. The dialogue is lame and character development is non-existent. We are never provided a reason to give a hoot about old Henry. Junior is never more than a video game creation. And DIA Agent Danny Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) seems to be an afterthought when someone realized the film needed a female presence. Clive Owen plays Clay Verris, the mastermind/mad scientist with little more than a scowl, though Benedict Wong brings a jolt of life to his Baron role as a pilot friend of Henry.

We do get to see some of the world. The initial sequence takes us on Henry’s final mission. It’s his 72nd kill, and it occurs from a grassy knoll in Belgium through a window on a bullet train going 228 mph. Henry heads back to his isolated lake cabin in Buttermilk Sound, Georgia where his peaceful retirement lasts about 3 scenes. Soon, we are headed to Columbia for a crazy motorcycle chase, and then on to the catacombs in Budapest – an idea that provides a welcome dose of inspiration.

High-speed parkour, blurry close-up fight scenes, rooftop shootouts, and a hyper motorcycle chase through town all have an air of familiarity, which is something this type of film should strive to avoid. Rian Johnson’s LOOPER toyed with us using a young and old version of the same character, and though that was time travel and not cloning, the ideas are too similar for this one to come across as unique. Oscar winning cinematographer Dion Beebe (MEMORIES OF A GEISHA) delivers the shots – down to the crystal clear logos on beer and soda – but we never really experience the thrill that new technology should deliver. It should also be noted that no theatre in America is equipped to show this in the way Ang Lee filmed it: 4K 3D 120fps HFR format … leaving us wondering, what’s the point?

watch the trailer:


AD ASTRA (2019)

September 19, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Astronaut Roy McBride’s pulse rate may never go above 80 bpm, but mine certainly did during the opening sequence which features a stunning and spectacular space fall. It’s unlike anything we’ve seen before. Roy has trained his entire life for this work; however his true mental state is only revealed slowly throughout the film’s run. After witnessing his actions and hearing (through narration) his thoughts, we are left to decide what we think of Roy … stoic hero or simmering psychopath? Either way, he’s haunted by a past that has rendered him mission-focused and the world’s worst party guest. The film takes place in the not-too-distant future.

Brad Pitt stars as Roy McBride, in what may be his career best (and most inward-looking) performance. Roy is the son of NASA hero Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), the leader of The Lima Project – a decades old mission to Neptune tasked with searching for extraterrestrial life. The elder McBride has long been assumed dead with no signals or response signs in many years. A recent power surge that threatens humanity has been traced to Neptune, and now Roy is being used as bait to track down his rogue astronaut father and prevent him from causing further damage.

Roy’s assignment requires him to journey from Earth to the Moon to Mars and, ultimately, on to Neptune. Along the way, he travels with Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), an old friend of Clifford’s, who is sent along to make sure the son doesn’t acquiesce to the father. Of course, it’s a nice touch to have Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland together again in a space movie 20 years after SPACE COWBOYS, a more upbeat adventure. Here we see a populated moon – yet another place we humans have messed up – replete with turf wars. There is also a shootout in a space capsule, and an unscheduled stop that provides shocking visuals and causes a shift in the crew.

James Gray, who directed the vastly underrated THE LOST CITY OF Z (2016) delivers a space film with terrific visuals and a script he co-wrote with Ethan Gross, that examines how a father can affect the life of his son even when he’s not present. The film has an unusual pace to it. There are a few action sequences, but the core of the film is the psychological state of son versus absent father. Roy’s inability to connect with loved ones is displayed through flashbacks involving Liv Tyler, and it’s his own narration that provides us much more insight than his regularly scheduled psychological tests.

Ruth Negga (LOVING) has a nice turn as Helen Lantos, one of the key officials at the Mars space station, and her encounter with Roy provides him with yet more background on his father. It’s easy to recall both APOCALYPSE NOW (only with Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Kurtz) and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY given the isolation, questionable mental state, and mission-gone-wrong. The cinematography Hoyte Van Hoytema (DUNKIRK) is outstanding, and never allows us to forget Roy is in space … with danger present in every moment. The title translates “to the stars”, and it’s true in every sense.

Mr. Gray has delivered a thought-provoking big budget science fiction film. It has incredible special effects, but the personal story packs even more punch than the galactic adventure. Many will compare this to other space films like CONTACT, GRAVITY, and FIRST MAN, but this one requires more investment from the viewer, as it’s the character study that resonates. This is Brad Pitt’s movie (he’s in most every scene), and the ties to his father are never more evident than when he (and we) see The Nicholas Brothers performing in black and white on that monitor. If a daily psychological profile was required for each of us, it would be interesting to see how much work would actually be accomplished. Now, imagine yourself stationed in space and just try to keep your heartrate below 80!

watch the trailer:


MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL (2019)

June 13, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is the era of sequels and spin-offs, and every studio dreams of franchises they can squeeze for profit again and again. The 4th entry in the MIB franchise {MEN IN BLACK (1997), MEN IN BLACK II (2002), MEN IN BLACK 3 (2012)}, is certainly more spinoff than sequel, although there is a nugget that ties it to the earlier versions. While we get a new cast and a new director, there are plenty of familiar elements to satisfy loyal fans, although winning new ones may be less likely.

Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson are reunited from THOR: RAGNAROK and AVENGERS: ENDGAME to take the leads as Agent H and Agent M, respectively. Replacing the chemistry of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones is a pretty tough challenge, even for two likeable and talented actors. Because of that, it probably makes sense that director F. Gary Gray (STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, 2015) and co-writers Matt Holloway and Art Marcum (also co-writers on the original IRON MAN, 2008) take the film in a slightly different direction. There are two key story lines: discovering the “mole” within MIB, and protecting the world’s most dangerous weapon from falling into the wrong hands.

Hemsworth overplays his dashing, somewhat inept super agent (a cross between Bond and Clouseau) who charms his way out of every situation, and even though he doesn’t fit the MIB we are accustomed to, he’s fun to watch and good for some laughs. Ms. Thompson (so good in CREED) is the brainy rookie who spends two decades trying to maneuver herself into a position at MIB, and once she does, it’s clear she belongs. Back from the third film is Emma Thompson as Agent O, a senior MIB manager who interviews and hires Molly. Rafe Spall is Agent C, Agent H’s internal adversary, and Liam Neeson is High T, the bureau chief. Rebecca Ferguson appears as Riza, Agent H’s handsy former squeeze turned villain in a cool fortress. Dancing twins Laurent and Larry Bourgeois play two shape-shifters (a description that doesn’t do justice to their skills).

The story bounces from Paris to Brooklyn to London to Marrakesh to Paris to Naples. It’s a pretty wild adventure with the snazzy guns and futuristic vehicles we’ve come to expect. In fact, the Lexus reps the brand quite nicely. Molly’s backstory is provided early on as the kind of kid who reads Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” in bed, and the film offers some clever touches with office artwork and the early years of MIB (Gustave Eiffel), but overall it just seems to be missing something. Fortunately, while H and M are saving the world, Kumail Nanjani as Pawny (voice) is saving the film. His little character provides the most laughs and the most creative punchlines. The franchise has enough of a loyal following that the film should do fine, however it will be surprising if this one can replicate the success of the first 3 films … although, you guessed it, the sequel to the spin-off is teed up.

watch the trailer:


THE DEAD DON’T DIE (20190

June 13, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Love it or hate it. Sometimes it’s not that easy. Sometimes it is. Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch has been making his own brand of videos, shorts, documentaries and features since the 1980’s. He has a loyal following of viewers who “get” him, and even within those ranks there is debate about which of his projects work and which don’t. You know who doesn’t care?  Jim Jarmusch, that’s who. He creates the work he wants to create and works with the actors and crew that he wants to work with … he’s best described as the type who lets the art speak for itself.

As we pull into town, the billboard states “Welcome to Centerville. A real nice place. Population 738”. It’s a bland town with a bland name filled with bland people whose bland conversations focus on doughnuts and pie from the town’s only diner. The police force totals 3 (seems high for such a small town). Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) is the veteran police chief, while Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) and Mindy Morrison (Chloe Sevigny) are the deputies … all three are bespectacled.

Initial interactions provide a quick lay of the land. Farmer Frank (a loud-mouthed Steve Buscemi) accuses Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) of stealing his chicken. Hermit Bob lives in the woods and doesn’t take kindly to accusations. Frank, despite his racist core, is somehow friendly with Hank (Danny Glover), a mild-mannered local who chats it up at the diner. Bobby Wiggins (Caleb Landry Jones) is the town’s pop culture guru who runs the gas station/comic book store.

Even this law enforcement team recognizes strange things are happening: the sun doesn’t set when it should, watches are stopped, and animals are disappearing. We hear news reports that ‘polar fracking’ has knocked the earth off its axis, coupled with government denials stating jobs are plentiful and profits are up. Obviously this is Jarmusch taking his shots at the environmental policies and focus on the economy of the current administration. Our first zombie attack happens at the diner (of course) and features Sara Driver (Jarmusch’s long-time partner) and Iggy Pop (who requires little make-up to be convincing as a zombie). Many more zombies follow.

While Murray’s Cliff and Mr. Driver’s Ronnie maintain their deadpan conversations and reactions, it’s Ms. Sevigny’s Mindy who is terrified in the face of their nonchalance. Adding color to the mix is Tilda Swinton as Zelda, the samurai sword wielding mortician with a Scottish accent, a flair for make-up and an other-worldly secret. Also appearing are Selena Gomez, Carol Kane, Rosie Perez and RZA.

As the opening film at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it’s a blend of comedy, fantasy, horror, zombie, and social commentary … but none of the pieces are particularly effective. It’s somehow both wry and mundane, and not meant to be traditionally scary or laugh out loud funny. Jarmusch has delivered such diverse films as PATERSON (2016), ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (2013), and BROKEN FLOWERS (2005). “This isn’t going to end well” is a line Driver’s Ronnie states a few times, and it’s both foreshadowing and self-awareness from the filmmaker. It’s his commentary on the state of the world, as well as the movie.

Zombie-comedies have been done (SHAUN OF THE DEAD, DAWN OF THE DEAD and many others), and it’s usually best to bring something new to a tired genre. Instead, Jarmusch pays tribute to such films as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, KILL BILL, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, PSYCHO, and STAR WARS. He even tips his cap to Samuel Fuller (gravestone) and George Romero (a 1969 Pontiac LeMans). As if to acknowledge the love-hate factor that goes with his movies, Jarmusch allows Sturgill Simpson’s (also appearing as the guitar-zombie) theme song to exemplify such division. Selena’s character and Ronnie love the song, while Murray’s Cliff can’t stand it and flings the disc out of the car window.

You are likely wondering if the world needs yet another take on the zombie apocalypse. Of course, the answer is no … which means in Hollywood, there are countless more zombie apocalypse TV series and movies (numerous sequels) in the works. Jarmusch isn’t here to simply add another number to the genre. No, he uses the format to proclaim that our society is soul-dead. He believes we are all stumbling, zombie-like, through life, rattling off our favorite products. He may be right.

watch the trailer:


AQUAMAN (2018)

December 13, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Were the TV series “Entourage” still on the air, they would now need a new recurring punchline. The AQUAMAN movie is real! At the helm, we are surprised to find the master of horror, James Wan, in the director’s seat. Mr. Wan is known for such genre flicks as SAW, INSIDIOUS, and THE CONJURING, and his talent for visuals transfers well to the comic book style. In fact, with a run time of almost 2 ½ hours, the visual effects are both exhilarating and exhausting.

Sure, we’ve seen short bursts of Jason Momoa as Aquaman in a couple of previous DC movies, but this time he owns the pool. Momoa plays Arthur Curry as a hunky beer-chugging rock and roll party dude who just happens to talk to fish and breathe underwater.  Since it’s the first Aquaman movie, writers David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (ORPHAN) and Will Beall (GANGSTER SQUAD) provide us the backstory.

On the coast of Maine in 1985, a lighthouse attendant named Tom Curry (played by Temuera Morrison) discovers Princess Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) washed ashore. What follows is a whirlwind romance, the birth of their son Arthur, Nicole snacking on a goldfish, as well as her first kick-ass action fight scene. To protect her son, she agrees to head back to Atlantis where she faces the consequences of birthing a half-breed with a landlubber.

When we first see a grown Arthur – with a classic hair flip – he is thwarting the hijacking of a Russian submarine by Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his father (Michael Beach, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK). Manta is one of the two main villains – the other being Orm (Patrick Wilson), Arthur’s war-mongering, power-thirsty half-brother. Sharing a common enemy, Orm enlists Manta and provides a highly-advanced weapon that, for some unfathomable reason, Manta begins (via montage) to ‘Iron-Man’ it to another level – one much less stable. It’s Orm who gets much more screen time as he plots a massive attack on surface dwellers (humans) who have been destroying the sea for years. You didn’t think Hollywood would miss a chance to tell us how despicable we are, did you?

The basic story is that Orm must defeat Aquaman to claim the throne and become Master of the Sea. Of course, Arthur is reluctant to get involved and only does so at the urging of his old mentor Vulko (Willem Dafoe) and Mera (Amber Heard), both of whom wish to avoid a war with humans. The first battle of the would-be kings takes place in The Ring of Fire, a royal battleground missing only the accompaniment of Johnny Cash. The duel ends prematurely, so that an epic battle can later serve as the film’s epic climax.

Although director Wan may throw a bit too much ‘plot’ and action at the proverbial wall, it is interesting to note the history/mythology associated with Atlantis, the ruling class, and the missing trident. The legends are fascinating and the journey takes us to all ends (and depths) of the globe … from the deepest seas to the middle of the Sahara Desert (itself once a sea) to the incredible core of the Earth. We see the ancient ruins, as well as the high-tech futurama Atlantis … and it’s all stunning to watch.

Don’t tell Marvel, but the film is somewhat a blend of BLACK PANTHER and THOR, and Momoa is every bit the Aquaman that Chris Hemsworth is Thor (quite a compliment). Yes, we find out that Atlantis, like our dry land world, is burdened with politics and power-hungry types, but the underwater world and the visual effects keep us mesmerized. We see terrific dragon-like sea horses, a drumming octopus, and a Kraken-like creature supposedly voiced by Julie Andrews (fact or fiction?). There is an early sequence that takes swimming with dolphins to a level you didn’t experience on your vacation, and the lighting effects at times recall TRON and can be a bit disorienting.

This is probably the largest scale DC movie to date, and director Wan chooses to make a splash with every element – character, mythology, setting, and effects. We also get appearances from Dolph Lundgren as King Nereus and Randall Park as a TV talking head/oceanographer making the case that Atlantis is real and a threat. We even get Roy Orbison singing “She’s a Mystery to Me”, and the IMAX aspect ratio makes the first ever over-the-top underwater spectacle. And what a spectacle it is.

watch the trailer: