THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD (2021)

May 18, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Taylor Sheridan was Oscar nominated for his screenplay of the superb HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016). He also wrote and directed WIND RIVER (2017), wrote the screenplays for both SICARIO movies, and is the creative force behind the TV series “Yellowstone”. He has excelled in generating slow-burn tension and conflict. For his latest film, he’s back in the director’s chair after co-writing the script with Charles Leavitt (BLOOD DIAMOND, 2006) and the 2014 novel’s author, Michael Koryta.

Oscar winner Angelina Jolie stars as Hannah, a thrill-seeking smokejumper (those folks who jump out of airplanes to fight fires and save lives) burdened with a faulty decision that cost lives in a massive forest fire the previous year. After flunking her psyche-evaluation, Hannah packs up the blame and her flashbacks and accepts her low-key assignment to the solitude of “Fire Tower”, a lookout perched above the tree line of Soda Butte, a park area within Yellowstone that encompasses the Continental Divide. Early on we see the camaraderie of the smokejumpers as they tease each other and “welcome” the new firefighters to the park.

In a seemingly unrelated storyline (although we know the intersection is coming), Owen (Jake Weber, “Medium”) and his son Connor (Finn Little) take an emergency detour on the way to school. Owen is a forensic accountant who uncovered some corruption while working for a Florida DA who was recently murdered by the same hitmen now chasing Owen and his son. Soon, Connor is wandering alone through the forest looking for someone he can trust, and up pops Hannah. The pair of calm-cool-collected hitmen are played by Aidan Gillen (“Game of Thrones”) and Nicholas Hoult (MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, 2015). They track down Owen’s brother-in-law Ethan (Jon Bernthal, BABY DRIVER, 2017), who happens to work for the sheriff’s department in the same park.

Whether you call it a hunt or a chase, it’s always a bit creepy when professional hitmen are tracking down an innocent kid, and the tension is elevated when we see the bad guys take their direction from a higher-up bad buy played by Tyler Perry in one brief scene. The film features a hand full of excellent action sequences, including a shootout between the hitmen and Ethan’s pregnant wife Allison (Medina Senghore). Conveniently, Allison runs a survivor camp, and despite her belly, manages to put up quite a fight.

Cinematographer Ben Richardson (BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, 2012) capitalizes on the extraordinary vastness and beauty of Soda Butte, and some of the forest fire effects are so good we can almost feel the heat. The supporting cast is excellent and the multiple story lines all work together nicely. For me, what prevented the film from reaching the level it could have, was the presence and performance of Angelina Jolie. Her last action movie was SALT in 2010, and here she seems too concerned with a look of glamor – right down to consistently brushed hair and perfect make-up – than fitting the profile of the courageous (and slightly off-center) smokejumpers. She stands out from the others on the team not because of her inherent extreme risk-taking, but rather because of her magazine-cover approach – something not limited to the hair and make-up, but also her posing and preening, including many of the same gazes from other movies like GONE IN SIXTY SECONDS (2000). I often admire and respect the choices actors make, but in this case, those choices work against everything else in what could have been an excellent dramatic thriller.

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SEVENTH SON (2014)

February 5, 2015

seventh son Greetings again from the darkness. Fantasy adventure films based on popular novels have certainly posted a track record of box office success … sometimes in record-setting style. However, not every entry into this genre need be a Goliath like the “Harry Potter” or “The Lord of the Rings” franchises. There is always room for simpler and still-creative movie-making like The NeverEnding Story or Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. Based on Joseph Delancey’s “The Wardstone Chronicles” (17 novels), this latest from Russian director Sergey Bodrov strives to be something special. Though it falls short of such a lofty goal, it still provides an entertaining onslaught to the senses.

A release date delayed by two years is rarely a good sign for a movie, though the official word blames it on legal issues between studio and distributor. No matter to us viewers, as what we care about is seeing something new and exciting. The steady stream of 3D special effects have their moments, but it’s impossible not to notice the out-of-focus issues that abound in post-production 3D. Still the swooping camera work through the mountains, Grand Canyon, bodies of water, and very cool looking temples and walled cities, provide the “epic” look a film like this must offer. An extremely heavy dose of CGI must have kept quite a few programmers employed, and the effects bounce between quite impressive and totally flat. Personally, I never get tired of seeing angry dragons … even if it happens 3 or 4 times in the same movie.

Let’s talk about Jeff Bridges as Master Gregory, the town spook (creature hunter). Evidently Mr Bridges only accepts roles these days that don’t require a haircut … or even a shower. But what’s with that voice? The first time Master Gregory opens his mouth, I immediately thought it sounded like his Rooster Cogburn in True Grit taking a big swig of bourbon and, before swallowing, delivering his lines of dialogue. This voice is a creative choice that crashes and burns. Dialogue is of little use if the audience can’t understand. As challenging as it was for me, it’s expected that most of the target market will be totally lost in Gregory’s exchanges with his apprentice or his sidekick or any of the wicked witches.

The obvious attempt to set up a franchise, or at least a sequel, suffers from another fatal error. Asking Ben Barnes (playing apprentice Tom Ward) to carry the torch is just not reasonable. His wooden approach in The Chronicles of Narnia reminded of Orlando Bloom (that’s not a compliment), and this outing just reinforces that original impression. The hulking sidekick Tusk is played by John DeSantis, and rather than stress his loyalty, we get a few lame jokes at his expense. Julianne Moore takes on the role of the powerful witch Mother Malkin, and though she gives it a shot, the role is simply underwritten and fizzles rather than sizzles. Other support work comes from Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair) as a young witch smitten with the apprentice, Olivia Williams as the mother-with-a-secret to the apprentice, while Jason Scott Lee and Djimon Hounsou each play talented, other worldly creatures.

It’s a bit surprising that the story isn’t more complex and the characters better developed given the screen writing team of Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond) and Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Locke, “Peaky Blinders“). We just never get a chance to understand the legacy of Master Gregory and his spurned girlfriend-witch Mother Malkin. We also are expected to take a huge leap of faith when the apprentice can’t accurately throw a knife in one scene, and shortly he is battling assassins, witches and other creatures. Perhaps the only explanation needed is that he is a “son of a witch”.

Fans of The Big Lebowski will get a kick out of seeing Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore reunited on screen, even if we wish their battles were fiercer. And while it’s nice to learn that four arms can really improve one’s swordplay, it’s a bit disappointing to miss out on the true power of a Blood Moon. Enjoy the visuals, duck from the dragons, and strain to understand the words coming out of the mouth of Master Gregory … there is some entertainment value here.

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