MIDWAY (2019)

November 7, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Japan’s World War II goal was to devastate the United States Navy fleet in the South Pacific, thereby securing the area as their own and crippling the U.S. military beyond hope. The December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor was the first step and the most infamous. Over the next few months, what followed were the Raid on Tokyo (April 1942), Battle of Coral Sea (May 1942) and the Battle of Midway (June 1942). Stating that these battles changed the war is not an understatement, as the Imperial Japanese Navy had previously been viewed as superior (especially after the destruction at Pearl Harbor). Director Roland Emmerich (THE PATRIOT, INDEPENDENCE DAY) has never met a war or explosion or special effect he didn’t like, so we know going in that, given the subject matter and the filmmaker, the screen will be filled with action.

Emmerich co-wrote the script with Wes Tooke (his first feature script), and as with many WWII movies, it acts as a history lesson on a war that changed the world. This one focuses on naval strategy and particularly on the individuals who defined courage and heroism … many names we recognize from history books. The contrast between Japanese military leaders and United States military leaders is on full display, and it’s no surprise that the Japanese leaders are mostly portrayed as cold and calculating, while the U.S. leaders come across as more humanistic and resourceful. Pride is evident on both sides – it’s just displayed differently.

The players are crucial to the story. Woody Harrelson plays Admiral Chester Nimitz, Dennis Quaid is Vice Admiral “Bull” Halsey (commander of aircraft carrier USS Enterprise), Patrick Wilson is Intelligence Officer Lieutenant Commander Edwin Layton, Jake Weber is Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance, Luke Evans is Lieutenant Commander Wade McClusky, Brennan Brown plays Joseph Rochefort (leader of the code breaker team), and Aaron Eckhart is Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, the extraordinary pilot who led the Raid on Tokyo in April 1942. On the Japanese side, Tadanabu Asano plays Rear Admiral Yamaguchi (commander of the aircraft carrier Hiryu), Jun Kunimura is Admiral Nagumo (he of questionable battle decisions), and Enushi Toyokawa plays Admiral Yamamoto, the most dignified and influential of the Japanese leaders.

Much of the story is told from the perspective of naval pilot Lieutenant Dick Best (Ed Skrein, DEADPOOL). While personal stories and challenges faced by individuals makes for a relatable story for viewers, there is something about this particular actor that comes across as awkward and difficult to bond with. There is no doubting the character and courage of Dick Best as a pilot; however, Skrein’s performance is flat out annoying and distracting. The dive bombing missions are breathtaking and thrilling, but overall the liberal use of green screen for effects detracts from the realistic looks we’ve come to expect for war movies.

Mandy Moore as Anne Best, and Nick Jonas as a mechanic, are cast for relatability by viewers, but the value in the film comes from an easy-to-follow description of the contrasting strategies of the two militaries. It’s also a reminder that the “big” story of WWII is comprised of many individual stories of people … people who were brave and heroic in a time of need. So ignore the cheesy affects, unrealistic dialogue, and irritating performances, and instead take in the work and actions of those who saved the world.

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:


THE FOUNDER (2016)

January 19, 2017

founder Greetings again from the darkness. How you define success will likely determine your interpretation of this film that is every bit as much about the humble beginnings and explosive growth of McDonalds as it is a biopic of Ray Kroc, the self-professed “founder” of the golden arches empire. Capitalism and its corresponding businessmen have not typically been favorably portrayed by Hollywood in such films as The Social Network, Wall Street, Glengarry Glen Ross, Steve Jobs and The Wolf of Wall Street. This latest from director John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks, The Blind Side) and writer Robert Siegel (The Wrestler) is no exception, and it’s obvious why.

It’s 1954 when we first catch up with Ray Kroc (as played by Michael Keaton). He’s the type of traveling salesman who totes around his latest widget (a multiple milkshake machine), rehearses and polishes his spiel (via extreme close-up), and listens to motivational record albums that preach the importance of persistence, while he stays at roadside motels that act as his home away from home. Kroc doggedly pursues the American dream, and optimistically bounces from one project to another … convinced that he’s found “the next big thing”.

When circumstance leads him to a crowded little octagonal burger shop in San Bernardino, Kroc becomes fascinated with its simplicity and success. Over dinner, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) McDonald detail the Spee-Dee kitchen design and unique focus on quality, consistency and speed that today is considered the starting line of the fast-food industry. The tennis court sequence is especially creative and fun to watch. While the brothers prefer to keep the business small and remain in control, Kroc pitches his vision of franchising … a pitch with emphasis on “Crosses. Flags. Arches”.

The full story is likely one most people don’t know … despite the fact that McDonalds now feeds 1% of the world population each day (a statistic posted on screen). The relationship between Kroc and the McDonald brothers was never a smooth one, and it’s a perfect example of dog-eat-dog, or unprincipled vs idealistic. Kroc sees himself as a “winner”, while it’s likely most will view his actions as unscrupulous, even if legal.

Keaton’s performance accurately captures a man who is impatiently ambitious, and whose confidence and ego grow incrementally as it becomes inevitable that the decency of the brothers is actually a weakness in business. Offerman and Lynch are both excellent, and other support work is provided by Laura Dern as Kroc’s first and mostly neglected wife who is tossed aside when something better comes along; BJ Novak as Harry J Sonneborn, the key to Kroc’s power move; Justin Randell Brooks as Fred Turner and Kate Kneeland as June Martino, two trusted employees; and Patrick Wilson as a key franchisee. Linda Cardellini (Mad Men, Bloodline) plays Joan, Ray’s wife (she was actually his third) and business advisor from 1969 until his death in 1984. The film shortchanges her importance – at least until the closing credit recap.

Bookending that opening extreme close-up sales pitch, is a near-conclusion zoom on Keaton’s face as he prepares for an event where he will tell his story … at least his version of the story. The film does a really nice job of capturing the era. Of particular interest is that the cars don’t look like they rolled right out of a classic car show, as happens with most movies. It’s nice to see some faded paint and a dented fender on screen. The early McDonalds locations are beautifully and realistically replicated to provide a nostalgic look for some, and a first glimpse for others. Carter Burwell’s score is complementary to the proceedings, and director Hancock deserves credit for not just making this the Michael Keaton/Ray Kroc show. Rather than serving up a Happy Meal movie, the film instead provides a somewhat toned-down historical view of ambition and drive, and the birth of an empire … one that changed our culture.

watch the trailer:

 


BONE TOMAHAWK (2015)

October 25, 2015

bone tamahawk Greetings again from the darkness. In an effort to be helpful to potential viewers, it’s customary to provide a synopsis that allows for a quick determination on whether this “type” of movie will hold appeal. The problem is that this debut from writer/director (and novelist) S. Craig Zahler can be encapsulated with a simple: four local men from a small, dusty old West town head out on a rescue mission to face a tribe of cannibal cave-dwellers. Unfortunately, that analysis doesn’t cover the originality and genre-twisting of this Western-Horror film featuring crisp and funny dialogue, plus some of the most extreme brutality ever witnessed on screen.

A very deep and talented cast milks the script for every possible chuckle, moan, shock of pain, and queasy squirm. Kurt Russell stars as Franklin Hunt, the sheriff of the ironically named town Bright Hope. Though a long-time fan of Mr. Russell, I’ve often been critical of his career-limiting role choices, and here he proves yet again that he has always been capable of taking on a challenging lead and delivering a nuanced performance. He is joined in the rescue posse by his “back-up deputy” Chicory (Richard Jenkins), the abducted woman’s injured husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson), and a nattily attired gunman (Matthew Fox).

The opening sequence featuring outlaws Purvis (David Arquette) and Buddy (horror vet Sid Haig doing his best Slim Pickins imitation) sets the stage for the brutal violence to come in the third act, as well as the film’s crackling dialogue that’s clearly influenced by The Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, and Elmore Leonard. There are also brief but memorable supporting roles from Kathryn Morris (as the Sheriff’s wife), Michael Pare’ (as a self-centered stable owner), James Tolkan (as an uninspired piano player), and Fred Melamed (as the barkeeper). Lili Simmons (“Banshee”) has a key role as the abducted Samantha O’Dwyer.

An odd blending of John Ford’s The Searchers and Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, a substantial portion of the (long) run-time is dedicated to the slow trail ride/walk of the four men as they track the “troglodyte” tribe in hopes of rescuing the captured folks. The focus on these four men: the duty-bound Sheriff, the overly loyal deputy, the emotionally-driven husband, and the vengeful gunslinger, is an old West character study dressed up with some fancy oration. In fact, the excessively-perfect English sits in stark contrast to the other-worldly tribal wailings of the cave-dwellers who seem to have no real language at all.

It’s an unusual film that defies a simple synopsis, and certainly won’t appeal to all movie goers. A viewer must enjoy the prolonged journey and the interaction between the distinctive personality types (Jenkins is a particular standout in a Walter Brennan-type role), and also have an affinity (or at least a constitution) for gruesome brutality. The film is only receiving a very limited theatrical release, but should find an audience via VOD.

watch the trailer:

 

 


LET’S KILL WARD’S WIFE (2014)

January 2, 2015

Let's kill ward's wife Greetings again from the darkness. What would it take for you and your buddies to talk about killing someone? Perhaps you already have … you know, in a joking way … maybe while playing golf together. That’s what happens to Ronnie (James Carpinello), David (Patrick Wilson), and Tom (Scott Foley). A couple of cracks about wanting to kill Stacy (Dagmara Dominczyk), wife of their buddy Ward (Donald Faison), leads to further discussion and an uncomfortable google search.

Since all that is pretty gloomy, you should know that this is a comedy. It’s a very dark comedy (given the title) that is filled with a stream of one-liners and some outlandish behavior from a group of people who will never be considered criminal masterminds. On top of that, it comes across as some kind of psycho-sexual, spouse-swapping filmmaking project for first time feature writer/director Scott Foley.

Let’s see if we can connect the dots: In real life, Foley is married to Marika Dominczyk (she plays David’s wife in the movie) who is also the real life sister of Dagmara Dominczyk (Ward’s wife) who is the real life wife of Patrick Wilson. James Carpinello’s real life wife is (Dallas’ own) Amy Acker (she plays Tom’s wife), and we also get the real life daughter of Carpinello/Acker and the real life son of Foley/Marika … plus the younger sister of Marika and Dagmara. That’s more crossover than most community theater productions!

You may recognize Scott Foley from TV’s “Felicity” (or many other projects), and this is his first feature film as writer/director. The cast is obviously having a great time, and in that manner, reminds a bit of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (Joss Whedon’s 2012 version), which was also cast with a group of close friends (including Amy Acker, who also stars here). There are also similarities to VERY BAD THINGS, the 1998 film that brought out the worst traits of its characters. However as stated, this one is filled with offbeat humor and can best be described as black comedy. We even get Nicolette Sheridan as an on-the-prowl aging actress.

Some excellent films are referenced here, including: PULP FICTION, FARGO, SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, and TRAINING DAY. Clearly this film is not near the level of any of those, but they are used to keep the dialogue amongst friends presented in a grounded way for such an outrageous premise. This one won’t make you think much – and please don’t let it convince you that murder is a good idea. It might, however, generate a few laughs, and that’s always welcome.

watch the trailer:

 

 


INSIDIOUS: Chapter 2 (2013)

September 22, 2013

insidious2 1 Greetings again from the darkness. This is a perfect example of why it’s acceptable for writing standards to be lowered (somewhat) for horror films. This isn’t science fiction or history. We are in the theatre for one simple reason … we want to be frightened (to jump in our seats). Two years after the first Insidious, director and co-writer James Wan, screenwriter Leigh Whannell (who also appears as Specs) and producer Oren Peli, re-team for this sequel. It’s also just a few months after Mr. Wan’s very successful and well-made The Conjuring.

I enjoyed the first one.  There was a nice story that borrowed a bit from Poltergeist and some other horror classics. In a rare treat, Wan and Whannel actually tie in the sequel to the story from the first. Sure, some of it is a stretch with all of the parallel dimensions and multiple entities, but for the most part, it works and provides some nice thrills and chills.

insidious2 3 An especially nice surprise is the creative return of Lin Shaye as Elise, who stole all her scenes in the first entry. While the voice-over of her “younger” scenes was distracting, her screen presence helps hold the final act together. Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Ty Simpkins and Barbara Hershey are back as the family Lambert … and this time we get more backstory on why the family seems unable to escape the demons.

Wan, Whannell and Peli have done a very nice job of rejuvenating the horror genre, while still including the traditional fun of active closets, abandoned hospitals, creaky doors and musty basements. A certain amount of suspension of disbelief is required, but if you are looking for some scary fun, you could do much worse than the two “Insidious” films.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the horror genre (especially haunted houses and possession) OR you enjoyed Insidious from a couple years ago.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting Oscar-caliber performances or an airtight script

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fBbi4NeebAk


THE CONJURING (2013)

July 22, 2013

conjuring Greetings again from the darkness. The overdose and saturation of reality TV the past decade has resulted in at least a couple of Ghost Hunter type shows. Surely you have stumbled on at least one of these. Director James Wan kicks off this latest haunted house adventure with the all-too-familiar “Based on a True Story” and then proceeds to fill the next couple of hours with scene after scene of horror film staples … things we have jumped at many times over the years. However, this one is bumped up a notch thanks to atmosphere, direction and acting ability, and the fact that yes, the ghost hunters are/were REAL.
The Perron family has moved to the country for a “fresh start” and here is what we learn:

1. If the family dog won’t enter the new house, then neither should you or your kids. It’s time to move out. How many dogs aren’t dog-wagging thrilled to follow the kids right in through the front door?

2. If all the clocks (electric and wind-up) stop at exactly the same time, it’s time to move out.

3. If you stumble on a boarded up cellar/basement, just leave it boarded up … and it’s time to move out.

4. If multiple birds fly full speed into your house, breaking their necks, it’s time to move out.

5. If your daughter discovers an antique toy that she carries around while talking to her new imaginary friend … it’s time to move out.  If she brings her “old” imaginary friend with her to the new house … see The Shining.

6. If, over two consecutive evenings, your sleepwalking daughter bangs her head into the armoire left by the previous owners, it’s time to move out.

7. Having 5 daughters seems to make parenting exceptionally difficult, but this in itself is no reason to move out of the house.

8. Playing blindfolded ‘Hide and Clap’ is not an appropriate game when you live in a 3 level home. This is no reason to move out, just find a game that doesn’t require a blindfold … or an Ouija board.

9. If you ever have to call demonologists to your home, don’t get defensive about not being a religious family. Just move out of the house.

conjuring3 Director Wan gives us tastes of the haunted house/possession Big 3: The Exorcist, Poltergeist and Amityville Horror. It’s not at the level of these, but it’s certainly better than most horror films of the past two decades … at least we don’t get any stupid teenagers wandering through the woods. In fact, this one plays right off our natural tendency to feel safe and secure while surrounded by our family within the confines of our own home. The biggest scares come from the moments we are most relaxed.

It’s Rated R for being frightening.  There are no spinning heads or pea soup, and the gore factor is exceptionally low considering Mr. Wan directed Saw, the film that kicked off torture-fest movie genre. The acting here is really good for a horror film. Patrick conjuring4Wilson also starred in Wan’s Insidious, and here he plays Ed Warren. With his clairvoyant wife Lorraine (Vera Farmiga), the Warrens are well known ghostbusters, ghost hunters, demonologists, or whatever label you care to apply. We learn about their most famous case regarding Annaelle the creepy as heck doll, and we also see how they save a trophy from each of their cases … and store it in their home (a seemingly dumb move). Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston are also strong in their roles as the Perron parents. Another thing I liked was that the kids seem like real kids … especially the recognizable Joey King and MacKenzie Foy.

conjuring2 Horror and Comedy are both at the mercy of personal taste.  What makes you laugh and what makes you jump is probably different from others, so these two genres are difficult to recommend.  Still, it takes talent to direct a horror movie and not really introduce any new “gotcha’s”, while still keeping the viewers grabbing the armrests. So enjoy the jumps, cover your eyes, and keep in mind … if your dog won’t enter your new house, it’s time to move out!

**NOTE: an interesting side note … Ryan Gosling co-wrote the song that plays over the closing credits

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: your favorite horror films are the haunted house types

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have 5 daughters and think moving to the country is a good idea

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ejMMn0t58Lc