HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016)

August 16, 2016

hell or high water Greetings again from the darkness. A good guy doing bad things for a good reason. A bad guy doing bad things for a good reason. A good guy whose make-up doesn’t allow for bad things by anyone for any reason. Director David MacKenzie (Starred Up) and writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) serve up a quasi-western featuring a crusty old Texas Ranger doggedly pursuing two bank robbing brothers. If not for the numerous destroy-the-flow screaming political statements, this could have been a near instant classic – just a tick below No Country for Old Men.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster play brothers Toby and Tanner Howard. Details eek out slowly about each … most importantly that Toby is a divorced dad and Tanner is an ex-con. Toby has meticulously planned out their bank robbery spree. The goal is to save his family ranch so his boys can escape the “disease” of poverty. Tanner is along to support his brother … and probably because he enjoys the adrenaline rush.

Soon enough, Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is on the trail of the boys, and his highly developed instincts and gut feelings annoy his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) almost as much as Marcus’ incessant and insensitive racial teases – a reminder of the days when buddies would verbally jab each other without the risk of class action lawsuits.

The performances are all excellent. Pine is the quiet guy resigned to a life without happiness, but refusing to give up on his boys. Foster is the wide-eyed trouble-maker who long ago realized he would always be one careless moment from the end. Bridges literally becomes the Ranger being forced into retirement (age) but intent on remaining somewhat relevant. Additional support work is also quite colorful in a west Texas kind of way. The wonderful Dale Dickey gets an early sequence with the boys, the great Buck Taylor is always a pleasant presence, Margaret Bowman adds yet another memorable character to her resume as the T-Bone waitress, and Katy Mixon (“Eastbound and Down”) gets to stand up for the little people.

West Texas is a character unto itself with massive poverty, oil pumps on the horizon, dusty streets, rickety fences, and gun-toting citizens everywhere. Each of these elements is beautifully captured by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (Dom Hemingway), as are the actual bank robberies and the quiet moments between brothers and Rangers partners. To cap it off, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis add a nice score and even better soundtrack … the best of which is an opening song from Townes Van Zandt .

Mixed in with the impending gloom are some terrifically witty exchanges and some downright funny moments. Exceptional acting, a spot on setting, wonderful photography, and superb music are only slightly offset by the previously mentioned obnoxious and too obvious shots taken at big banks and oil companies. Sometimes a good story can be just that … and not a political statement.

watch the trailer

 

 

 

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THE FINEST HOURS (2015)

January 29, 2016

finest hours Greetings again from the darkness. The U.S. Coast Guard has played a role in many movies over the years, but only a few have placed this service branch directly in the heart of the story … most recently The Guardian (2006), which was little more than a cheesy, too-talkative water-based rip-off of Top Gun.  Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, 2007) takes a much different approach as he presents a look at one of the most legendary and heroic real-life rescues in Coast Guard history.

The Oscar-nominated writing team behind The Fighter (2010): Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson have collaborated on the screenplay based on the book from Casey Sherman and Michael J Touglas. It’s a worthy tribute (and clearly Disney-influenced) to what is described as the greatest Coast Guard small-boat rescue. It combines a boat-load (sorry) of tension-filled ocean-based sequences with some pretty interesting character-based sub-plots within a Massachusetts community that has become all too familiar with storm-based catastrophes.

Chris Pine stars as Bernie Webber, an awkwardly shy and obsessive rule-follower, who has lived under a cloud of doubt ever since a previous rescue mission failed, resulting in the death of a local fisherman/husband/father. We first meet Bernie as he bungles through a first date with Miriam (Holliday Grainger, a young Gretchen Mol lookalike). The film then jumps ahead to 1952 when they become engaged and Bernie is ordered into a questionable mission by his “not-from-around-here” commanding officer Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana). See, a huge storm has literally ripped apart not one, but two giant tankers, leaving crew members battling for survival. It should be noted that Bana the Australian, tosses out a laughable southern accent that is a joke within the movie and within the theatre (for different reasons).

Bernie and his crew: Richard Livesay (Ben Foster), Andy Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner), and Ervin Maske (John Magaro), take off against all odds in a too-small boat against too-big waves in a desperate attempt to rescue the tanker crew that includes brilliant engineer (and quiet leader) Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) and characters played by John Ortiz and Graham McTavish. Affleck excels as what can be termed a quiet leader. Of course, we know how the story ends, but the heroic efforts against a very powerful Mother Nature show-of-force make for compelling movie watching.

The special effects are stout, though not be as spectacular as The Perfect Storm (2010) or In the Heart of the Sea (2015), and it’s the human-factor that provides more than enough thrills, excitement, and tension. In fact, the biggest issue I had was that I saw a 3-D version which is an absolute disservice to the film. Most of the story takes place at night and at sea, so the 3-D consequence of dimmed light and muted colors results in a far too dark and dull look to the film. I spent much of the movie sliding the 3-D glasses down my nose in a simple attempt to enjoy a bit more brightness. The recommendation would be to skip the higher-priced (money grabbing) 3-D version and take in the more pleasing “standard” version.

Disney makes feel-good movies. Their target market is not cynics or the overly critical among us. The romance pushes the “corny” meter, but keeps with tradition of other Disney movies based on true stories like The Rookie (2002) and Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story (2005). Keep this in mind you’ll likely find this one pretty entertaining. Stick around for the closing credits as a slew of real photographs from the actual 1952 event are displayed, as are photos of the real heroes from that night.

watch the trailer:

 


INTO THE WOODS (2014)

December 23, 2014

 

into the woods Greetings again from the darkness. It’s a musical, but not a typical musical. It’s a fairy tale, but not a typical fairy tale. It’s funny, but not a typical comedy. It’s a bit frightening, but not a typical monster film. It’s filled with lessons of morality and responsibility, but certainly not a typical parable. In fact, there is nothing typical about director Rob Marshall’s (Oscar winner for Chicago) screen adaptation of the smash Broadway hit from Stephen Sondheim and James Lupine.

The story revolves around 4 classic Fairy Tales: Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Cinderella, in a style much more similar in tone to the edgy Brothers Grimm, than the cuddly Walt Disney traditionals. These four are intertwined with the saga of a baker (James Cordon) and his wife (Emily Blunt) who discover they have been unable to have children due to a long ago spell cast by a wicked witch (Meryl Streep). With a secret agenda, the witch offers the couple a way to break the spell, and that’s what ties-in the four tales and provides a reason for adventure and song.

Filmed seamlessly between an elaborate sound stage and a couple of park locations, the film has a dark and eerie feel to it that’s probably too intense for younger children. And much of the dialogue and lyrics is aimed directly at adults and will be a blur to kids. Additionally, in typical Sondheim fashion, the songs aren’t catchy and melodic in the manner of most movie musicals … instead the lyrics propel the story and help shape the characters. Oh, and by the way, don’t expect any fancy dance sequences – this is pretty serious stuff with plenty of angst amongst the characters.

Ms. Streep is extraordinary as the witch (both nasty and beautiful) and does a terrific job with her three main songs. She is especially fun in her entrances and exits, and while wearing the most impactful of all the costumes. Emily Blunt also handles her vocals very well and offers up some of the film’s most witty dialogue. Chris Pine (as the Prince) is flat out hilarious, and with a twinkle in his eye, spouts lines such as “I was raised to be charming, not sincere”. He also shares the screen with Billy Magnussen (playing the younger brother) in the most audacious of the musical numbers, “Agony”. As Cinderella, Anna Kendrick once again proves she is an exceptionally talented singer, and James Cordon anchors the production as the nice guy village baker we are rooting for.

In supporting roles, we have a devilish Johnny Depp whose screen time as the Big Bad Wolf is quite limited, and a perfectly cast Christine Baranski as the evil step-mother in cahoots with her non-Cinderella daughters played by Lucy Punch and Tammy Blanchard. Lilla Crawford is Little Red Riding Hood, and her young age snuffs out much of the innuendo that the Wolf scenes should have provided, and takes the edge off the song “I Know Things Now”. Daniel Huddlestone is an energetic Jack, and dependable Tracey Ullman plays his frustrated mom. MacKenzie Mauzy captures the awakening of Rapunzel, while Frances de la Tour frightens everyone involved as the agitated (for good reason) Lady Giant.

Unconventional is the best description of this production, and there is a group of viewers who will be totally captivated by it, while a much larger group will probably find it too dark and bleak, and lacking the easy charm we have come to expect from movie musicals. However, for those of us in the first group, we will be totally enchanted by the characters, story lines, wry humor, costumes, sets, and songs.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your fairy tales a bit on the dark side OR you want to see yet another incredible performance from Meryl.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for a light-hearted holiday matinee for the little kiddies

watch the trailer:

 


JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT (2013)

January 18, 2014

jack ryan Greetings again from the darkness. Tom Clancy’s spy novels have produced four prior movies with three different actors appearing as Jack Ryan: Alec Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October, Harrison Ford in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, and Ben Affleck in The Sum of All Fears. While not based on a specific Clancy novel, this latest is a prequel clearly attempting to re-boot the franchise with Chris Pine as Ryan.

Screenwriters Adam Cozad and David Koepp have come up with an elaborate backstory beginning with Ryan (Chris Pine) as a university student so impacted by the 9/11 events that he enlists in the Marines. His heroic actions in Afghanistan and impressive recovery from serious injuries draw the attention of Kevin Costner’s character who recruits Ryan into the CIA. Ryan is established as a genius analyst quickly rising through the ranks at his Wall Street firm.

That entire set up is well played and quite interesting. A character who is believable as both a Marine-trained combat expert and a world-class financial analyst is borderline superhero stuff, so a fine line must be walked. Oddly enough, the big mission that Ryan falls into is actually reminiscent of the Cold War James Bond films. Foiling a terrorist act and a Russian plot to crash the US economy may be a bit far-fetched, but not if you have Chris Pine and Kevin Costner on your side! The best scene … and most worthy of an espionage thriller … takes place at a fancy Russian restaurant. Dining together are Ryan, his fiancé (Keira Knightley) and the Russian bad guy (played by the film’s director Kenneth Branagh). It reminds somewhat of the poker game between Bond and Le Chiffre in Casino Royale. Every glance and every word have dual meanings, and they all know they are being played. Unfortunately, it’s this terrific little dinner that begins the downward spiral for the movie. The action sequences are just plain silly, and the car chases, tricked out surveillance vans, and all-knowing super computer programs are just too familiar and tiresome to be effective.

Kenneth Branagh has had an extremely diverse directing career with films such as Frankenstein (1994), Hamlet (1996) and Thor (2011). It’s understandable that he would jump at the chance to re-ignite this franchise, but the genre is filled with high level competition – especially Bond and Bourne. So while it’s entertaining enough for a January action movie, it’s not at the level of the other franchises.

Perhaps Chris Pine is a bit too ambitious. Already established as the new Captain Kirk in the Star Trek re-boot, he seems somewhat over-matched in the Jack Ryan role. His stunning blue eyes may rival those of Frank Sinatra, but his screen presence falls short of Harrison Ford.

Three favorite pieces in this one are recognition for Manhattan’s long time theatre Film Forum, a two scene cameo from ballet great Mikhail Baryshnikov, and the appearance of Peter Andersson as Branagh’s head of security (he was the sleazebag case worker in Sweden’s original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Kevin Costner states this is geopolitics, but I believe it is closer to Hollywood’s desperation to recapture success instead of creating something new.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: it’s January and your button for an Action flick is being pushed after all the Oscar releases in December.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you now expect all action/thriller movies to be at the level of Bond and Bourne.

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K9KAnx4EvaE

 

 


STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS (2013)

May 31, 2013

star trek1 Greetings again from the darkness. There is always a bit of uncertainty when discussing or reviewing anything Star Trek related. So many rabid fans are more knowledgeable and keyed in to all the details. I am not. While I enjoyed the Gene Rodenberry TV series, and the subsequent movie versions, obsession never hit me. Because of this, my views will vary from those Trekkies and sci-fi experts.

Director JJ Abrams re-invented the franchise in 2009 with stunning results. That “new” Enterprise crew returns here: Chris Pine as Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, Karl Urban as Bones, Zoe Saldana as Uhura, John Cho as Sulu, Anton Yelchin as Chekov and Simon Pegg as Scotty. The new addition is Alice Eve as Carol, daughter of Admiral Marcus (played by RoboCop Peter Weller). Abrams is wise enough to know that this story needed a great star trek2villain so he revisits Khan and casts a spectacular Benedict Cumberbatch (the sleazy dude from Atonement).

This movie works because of the crew’s chemistry. We believe they like and respect each other … even while breaking orders. The film works even better thanks to a villain that establishes a believable threat. Cumberbatch plays a super-human force with a mixture of Shakespeare and Hannibal Lecter. He delivers lines in a way that you have no cause to doubt his intent. This is a nice contrast to the warm fuzzies coming from the crew members.

star trek3 It can’t go without mention that there is a shocking display of crystal blue eyes on display. Chris Pine, Peter Weller, Benedict Cumberbatch and Alice Eve all flash baby blues that jump off the screen in 3D. The only reason the sea blue peepers weren’t more distracting is because of what I refer to as FXOD … a special effects overdose. It seems as though each summer blockbuster feels the obligation to go bigger on the visual effects to get noticed. As often happens, the effects are just too much. Luckily, the characters and story are strong enough that it stayed on track.

If you are a casual Star Trek fan, this is one that will entertain you. If you are a Trekkie, you have no doubt already seen it twice and have blogged about all the errors. Next up: 2016 for the third entry in the Abrams franchise.

**NOTE: It’s a pleasure to see the great Leonard Nimoy make another appearance as Spock, but it’s a shame that Abrams and William Shatner haven’t been able to come to terms.

**NOTE: While gratuitous sex in movies often draws much attention, it should be noted that a gratuitous shot of Alice Eve in her skivvies seems to be the main reason her character exists.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QAEkuVgt6Aw

 


THIS MEANS WAR

February 20, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Well it’s mid-February and the hope is that this is the worst movie I will sit through all year. It’s a waste of talent and utterly senseless … which would be fine if it happened to be funny. Somehow the writers and director manage to mash-up a spy thriller, action film, buddy film, and romantic comedy into something that is none of those and a slap in the face of the viewers.

This one is directed by McG, whose first two theatrical films were Charlie’s Angels and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, both of which had more and better action sequences than this (that says plenty). It stars three very attractive people in Chris Pine, Tom Hardy and Reese Witherspoon. Their job is to continue to look attractive, sparkly eyes and all, in each progressively more absurd scene. Chelsea Handler is tossed in as Witherspoon’s married friend, who doles out horrible and trashy dating advice in what sounds like a lousy stand-up comedy routine. Angela Bassett, a normally fine actress, is totally out of place in her couple of scenes as the always-angry boss. Til Schweiger (Inglourious Basterds) is totally wasted as the generic bad guy.

 The movie bookends two lackluster action sequences that make little sense and are not much to look at. In between, we have two best buddy co-worker spies competing for the affections of the same girl, who is taking advice from her nasty, jealous friend. All of that is done with little action, no suspense, minimal comedy and absolutely no logical sense. Did I mention that the three leads are all very attractive? One of the minor details that really irritated me was a scene in a giant video store where Pine and Witherspoon are debating the hierarchy of Hitchcock films. In and of itself, that would be fine. But this conversation takes place in front of a display of multiple copies of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. Multiple copies. In a video store. Probably more copies than Amazon has in stock. Throw in an escalating series of outlandish dates, a multi-million dollar bachelor pad for Pine (what is the salary for a 30 yr old spy?), buddy dialogue that makes Riggs & Murtaugh or Tango & Cash sound like Lincoln and Douglas.

This is evidently supposed to be an action flick for chicks. There is gunfire, muscles and childlike banter coming from two attractive spies who both love the attractive woman who is desperate to be loved. This means flop.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you don’t believe it could be this bad

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer not to pay $9 for a nap

watch the trailer (knowing that these are the “good” parts):


UNSTOPPABLE (2010)

November 21, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Three things about the film are undeniable. One: A runaway train is fascinating and dangerous. Two: Director Tony Scott really likes working with Denzel Washington (this is their 5th movie together). Three: Inspired by a real life 2001 runaway train in Toledo, the story plays right into Mr. Scott’s wheelhouse with action and heroic testosterone.

Admittedly, I tend to expect a great deal from filmmakers – well at least maximum effort.  Sometimes, this impacts my ability to just sit back and take a film for what it is.  Such is the case with Unstoppable.  While it would seem that a runaway train endangering many innocent people would be enough, I found myself annoyed that there wasn’t more.  On the plus side, tension is rampant and the film does an adequate job of capturing the emotions from three different perspectives – inside a train (Denzel and Chris Pine), at command center (Rosario Dawson and staff) and at the corporate office (smarmy Kevin Dunn). We also see exactly how a simple poor decision by one major goofball (Ethan Suplee) can imperil thousands of people.

Unfortunately, that’s where the good stuff ends. The script is abysmal and the acting only slightly better. Denzel sleepwalks through another textbook “Denzel” character. Rosario Dawson is given little to work with as the supervisor, and the usually dependable Kevin Dunn is way over the top as the corporate bad guy who is only worried about the hit to the stock price. There is even a ridiculous shot of the Chairman on a golf course, in case we viewers are too dumb to understand the perspective of the company. Chris Pine (Star Trek, Bottle Shock) is the only one who shows much, yet he still is given horrible dialogue to spout.

For proof that an unstoppable train movie can be exhilarating AND well written, check out Andrey Konchalovskiy‘s 1985 Runaway Train. Both Jon Voight and Eric Roberts received Oscar nominations. The psychological warfare in that one matched the breakneck pace of the train itself. Instead, this current film is written by Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard) in such a one dimensional frame that it takes the dramatized news reports to remind us that real people are in danger.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: like me, you are sucker for movies based on a true story OR you can watch tension-laced action without asking for more

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you require character development OR you agree that at $20 mil per film, Denzel is overrated and overpaid.