WIDOWS (2018)

November 15, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Woman power. Black power. Racist old white men. Corrupt politicians. Abusive husbands. Cheating white husbands. Racist cops. Men are bad. Women are strong and good. If a filmmaker were to blend all of these stereotypes into a single movie, then as movie goers we should expect an ultra-talented filmmaker like Steve McQueen to go beyond conventional genre. Unfortunately, a nice twist on the heist movie formula from Lynda La Plante’s novel turns into predictability that whips us with societal clichés posing as societal insight.

I seem to be one of the few not raving about this movie. Hey it has the director behind  Best Picture Oscar winner 12 YEARS A SLAVE (Mr. McQueen),  a screenplay he co-wrote with Gillian Flynn (GONE GIRL) from the aforementioned novel by Lynda La Plante, and a deep and talented cast of popular actors. It ticks every box and it’s likely to be a crowd-pleaser, despite my disappointment. Every spot where I expected intrigue, the film instead delivered yet another eye-roll and easy-to-spot twist with a cultural lesson. Each of the actors does tremendous work, it just happens to be with material they could perform in their sleep.

It’s the kind of film where audience members talk to the screen – and it plays like that’s the desired reaction. This is the 4th generation of the source material, including 3 previous TV mini-series (1983, 1985, 2002). It makes sense that this material would be better suited to multiple episodes, rather than hurried through 2 hours. There are too many characters who get short-changed, and so little time to let the personalities breathe and grow. But this is about delivering as many messages as possible.

A strong premise is based in Chicago, and finds a team of four burglars on a job gone wrong. This leaves a mobster/politician looking to the four widows (hence the title) for reparations. Since the women have no money, their only hope is to tackle the next job their men had planned. Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and Carrie Coon play the widows, though only the first three are given much to do, as the talented Ms. Coon is short-changed. In fact, Ms. Davis is such a strong screen presence that she dominates every scene she is in – she’s a true powerhouse. Even Liam Neeson can’t hang with her. Colin Farrell appears as a smarmy politician and Robert Duvall is his f-word spouting former Alderman dad. Cynthia Erivo has a nice supporting turn in support of the women, and Bryan Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Garret Dillahunt, Kevin J O’Connor, Lukas Haas, and Jon Bernthal fill out the deep cast … see what I mean about too many characters and too little time?

There is no single thing to point at as the cause for letdown. The story just needed to be smarter and stop trying so hard to comment on current societal ills. As an example, a quick-trigger cop shooting an innocent young African-American male seems thrown in for the sole purpose of ensuring white guilt and an emotional outburst from the audience. It’s difficult to even term this film as manipulating since we see the turns coming far in advance. Two far superior message films released earlier this year are Spike Lee’s BLACKKKLANSMAN and Boots Riley’s SORRY TO BOTHER YOU. For those who need only emotion and little intellect in their movies, this not-so-thrilling heist might work. For the rest of you, it’s good eye-roll practice.

watch the trailer:


FURIOUS 7 (2015)

April 5, 2015

 

furious 7 Greetings again from the darkness. “For Paul”. A touching tribute to the late Paul Walker provides an emotional end to the most high-octane (sorry about that) F&F episode yet … and the perfect victory lap (sorry again) for the franchise. Of course, we know that it won’t be the last, if for no other reason than easy box office money.

The franchise began in 2001, and the familiar faces are back: Vin Diesel as Dom, Paul Walker as Brian, Jordana Brewster as Brian’s wife Mia, Michelle Rodriguez as amnesiac Letty, Tyrese Gibson and Chris “Ludicrous” Bridges as comic relief Roman and Tej, respectively, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Agent Hobbs. New to the scene are Djimon Honsou as a terrorist, Ronda Rousey and Tony Jaa as elite henchmen (henchpersons?), Nathalie Emmanuel as super-hacker Ramsey, and Kurt Russell as the shadowy government-type cutting shady deals for fuzzy reasons. The biggest add is of course, Jason Statham as Deckard Shaw, the Black Ops big brother to Owen Shaw (Luke Evans) – silenced villain from the previous film (in which Statham made a brief appearance foreshadowing this story line).

Achieving remarkable success for what started as a fun little street racing cult film, this series thrives on its familiar characters, simple plot lines, staggering lineup of dream cars, and ever-louder and larger stunts, fights and set pieces. One of the earliest scenes features a fight scene that would be the climax of most action movies: The Rock vs Jason Statham. Rather than end or solve anything, this fight merely serves as a set-up for one of the film’s punchlines – involving The Rock and a plaster arm cast (pay no attention to that leg cast). In the middle, we get a too brief clash between Michelle Rodriguez and Ronda Rousey, but the real finale is a rooftop battle between Vin Diesel and Jason Statham that has such an extended cut-away, we almost forget they are going at each other.

In between those colossal fights, we get Paul Walker sprinting up the side of a bus that is sliding off a cliff, a wicked and armed drone, car chases galore – including one with a stealth chopper, synchronized10,000 foot car drops from an airplane, and most impressively, car jumps between the Etihad Towers in Abu Dhabi. That last one is not just any car, but a stunning red Lykan Hypersport … one with little resale value after its final trip.

Michelle Rodriguez’ character is fighting her amnesia, Ludacris and Tyrese play off each other like Laurel and Hardy, while Dom does his best Yoda impression, and Statham comes off like a revenge-seeking
missile from a Terminator movie. Every character gets their fair share of posing, preening, strutting and smirking. It would be an insult to call this over-the-top because that would imply we have previously seen
the top. This is high-speed, high-altitude mayhem that plays directly to a large fan base.

Personally, I’m not a devout F&F follower, and have seen only the first entry prior to this latest. My attendance for Furious 7 was driven (get it?) by my interest in seeing the tribute to Walker, and my personal code of seeing every Kurt Russell movie (don’t ask). However, I do understand the mass appeal, and I believe the followers will appreciate the approach of director James Wan (Saw, The Conjuring), who replaces 3 time series director Justin Lin.

watch the trailer:

 


BATTLE: LOS ANGELES

March 13, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. The downside to being an eternal movie optimist is that the falls can be very hard. I had hopes going in that this could be a sci-fi, alien-invasion, doomsday, special effects flick that would deliver a few thrills and chills. Not. So. Much.

The two best things I can say about the film are: 1. Aaron Eckhart has a great face for a grizzled Marine. 2. The film is loud. Loud and Noisy. If those don’t sound like resounding endorsements, it’s because I really, really, really disliked this movie.

Aaron Eckhart gives it all he has as the 20 year Marine who has put in for retirement. He also has a somewhat gray mark on his record from his last assignment, where (rumor has it) he was responsible for the death of men in his command. That really ends the depth of the film. Eckhart gets dragged back into active duty when a meteor shower turns out to be an alien invasion.

 This ludicrous alien invasion is evidently for the earth’s water. Somehow these aliens have run out of water on their planet, wherever that may be. They are smart enough for intergalactic travel and drone activity to minimize their own damage during the attack, but they can’t figure out how to successfully take over Santa Monica from a hand full of Marines.  By the way, Los Angeles traffic looks the same after an alien invasion – no cars are moving.

I found myself laughing on more than one occasion and I am quite sure that director Jonathan Liebsesman and writer Christopher Bertolini had no visions of this being comical. It has the look of a blend of Independence Day, Cloverfield and War of the Worlds. It isn’t in their league … and I really didn’t care much at all for two of those.

Bridget Moynahan, Michael Pena and a couple of kids are tossed in to soften the military slant and try to bring some human touches, but none of it works. Neither does Michelle Rodriguez as … SURPRISE … a tough as nails soldier who displays heroic instincts. Seen that before? The aliens look like malnourished Transformers. The camera work is god-awful. The special effects range from acceptable to laughable. The dialogue is limited to cool things like “look out”, “heads-up”, “in here”, “that’s an order” …  Actually, the movie could become perfect fodder for “Mystery Science Theater”!

But mostly what this one is successful at is NOISE. Lots of noise. Lots of loud noise. So believe me when I scream … STAY AWAY!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: your life is so perfectly calm and boring that you crave a cacophony of chaos.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer to avoid motion-sickness and headaches generated by sloppy filmmaking


MACHETE (2010)

September 6, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Sprung from the loins of the fake trailer during the Tarantino/Rodriguez double bill Grindhouse, this one delivers everything it promises: comedy, corn, bloody violence, over-the-top political statements, and wild spoofy stunts. There really is no legitimate way to critique it or review it. If you possess the gene that allowed you to enjoy Grindhouse, you will certainly be entertained by Machete.

Robert Rodriguez co-directed and co-wrote the film and puts his stamp all over it. There is no challenge to discovering where Mr. Rodriguez stands on the immigration issues. He is fortunate enough to be a filmmaker who can deliver a message in ways that very few can. Of course, this is not strictly speaking a message movie. It is better termed a spoof … heck, it’s billed as mexploitation! Danny Trejo, character actor extraordinare, finally gets his chance to carry a movie and he seizes the moment. His portrayal of Machete is with striking force and a straight poker face. There is little doubt that he is the Mexican federale whose family was killed by a drug kingpin (played by Steven Segal). Trejo tries to get on with his life, but is drawn right back in to the battle thanks to a local activist played by Michelle Rodriguez (headquartered in a Taco stand … yes, really), and by Jeff Fahey, henchman to an ultra racist State Senator played by Robert Deniro.

For a movie that prides itself more on brain spatters than brain matter, there are sufficient twists to the story to keep the viewer interested. But the real fun comes in the outrageous moments like opening credits “introducing Don Johnson“, and the cat-like ability of Machete to avoid certain death. Laughs ensue when Machete drags his brother into the fight. His brother? A new-age priest (Cheech Marin) packing an arsenal in the pews.

All of this is going on while an immigration agent played by Jessica Alba is trying to put the squeeze on Latin legend “She”, who she suspects is Michelle Rodriguez. Alba spends her lunch break playing Wii to keep fit. If all this isn’t quirky enough for you, how about Lindsay Lohan playing Fahey’s strung-out daughter, who later in the film dons a nun’s habit and a pistol?

You could think of this movie along the lines of a master spoof, similar to Airplane, only with tons of violence and explosions. The visual gags are on display, as are the one-liners that come out of left field. Mr. Rodriguez has done well for himself and his high expectation fans. I believe he knows what we want because it’s exactly what he wants himself!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you loved Grindhouse and can appreciate violent, over-the-top action spoofs … or if you just want to be shocked by seeing Steven Segal onscreen again.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are “normal”