BULLET TRAIN (2022)

August 3, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. If you are one that still needs proof that movie stars matter, this latest from director David Leitch (a former stuntman who also directed ATOMIC BLONDE, 2017) and screenwriter Zak Olkewicz (adapted from Kotaro Isaka’s 2010 novel, “Maria Beetle”) may be submitted as evidence. Replace Brad Pitt with almost any other actor, and this one becomes borderline unwatchable. However, with the Oscar winner, there is sufficient charm, humor, and entertainment to keep us around for the more than two hour run time.

Mr. Pitt stars as Ladybug, a floppy bucket hat wearing last minute fill-in for an assassin who called in sick. His handler (voiced by Oscar winner Sandra Bullock) walks him through what is supposed to be a simple snatch and grab job involving a briefcase. Of course, it turns out to be anything but simple as the train is filled with what seems to be an endless stream of contract killers intent on securing the same briefcase. Among those are Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry). Mr. Taylor-Johnson continues his tradition of over-acting and lacking the charm he believes he has, while Mr. Henry’s obsession with Thomas the Tank Engine at least gives his character a reason for us to be annoyed. The two are referred to as British brothers or even ‘twins’, which gives you some idea of what the film wants you to buy as humor.

A slew of other characters include Joey King as Prince, the “Shibumi” reading type who pushes a kid off a roof, and then uses her skill of crying-on-demand to escape most danger; Andrew Koji as Kimura, that kid’s distraught father; Hiroyuki Sanada as Kimura’s father; Zazie Beetz as The Hornet; rapper Bad Bunny as Wolf; Logan Lerman as the son of a Russian gangster, and Lerman spends much of the movie auditioning for the title character in “Weekend at Bernie’s”; and Michael Shannon as said Russian gangster, White Death. Beyond all of these highly recognizable folks, we also get two very high-profile cameos, both used for comic effect.

In between the one-minute stops on the trip from Tokyo to Kyoto, there is an abundance of fighting – comical, rapidly-paced, and violent – using such available props as the features on a smart toilet, knives, guns, swords, poison, bombs, and a venomous (incorrectly labeled as poisonous in the movie) Boomslang snake. Since most of the action takes place on the train, we get action in passenger cars, the galley, the lounge, the control booth, and even on top of the speeding train.

It’s Pitt’s character who keeps us interested, and the movie drags when he is off screen. Ladybug is a skilled improvisational fighter, although his recent personal growth through therapy has him eschewing guns, dwelling on his inherent bad luck, and reciting affirmations and wisdoms, when he can remember them. Mostly, by golly, he just wants to be a nicer person (quite a short trip for a contract killer). This chaos and spontaneous convention of bad players were all part of White Death’s plan, which is revealed late in the film.

It appears director Leitch (a former renowned stuntman) worked diligently to create a new form of zany by blending Guy Ritchie’s best work with Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” films, and then adding a dash of ‘who-done-what-to-whom?” Instead, with the near slapstick action and goofy dialogue, it plays more like a modern day CANNONBALL RUN, which was also directed by a former stuntman (the legendary Hal Needham). As a bonus, we also get the Japanese version of “Stayin’ Alive”, replete with Brad Pitt strutting through Tokyo in tennis shoes.

Opens in theaters on August 5, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER


THE LOST CITY (2022)

March 24, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. It’s not billed as a remake of ROMANCING THE STONE (1984), and perhaps that’s because it borrows from many adventure romantic-comedies over the years. Brothers and co-directors Aaron Nee and Adam Nee (BAND OF ROBBERS, 2015) have proven they can deliver exactly what is promised from a script by co-writers Oren Uziel (MORTAL COMBAT, 2021) and Dana Fox (CRUELLA, 2021). Seth Gordon receives a story credit, which is a bit ironic considering he has been quoted with, “The best stories are rooted in reality.”

Oscar winner Sandra Bullock stars as grieving, reclusive and highly successful romance novelist Loretta Sage, and Channing Tatum co-stars as her long-time and extremely popular cover model, Adam (in what is obviously a ‘wink and a nod’ to Fabio). Loretta’s love of history, and the passing of her husband, have combined to make her despise the books she writes and the publicity tours she’s required to attend … especially when being forced to wear a skintight purple/fuchsia sequined onesie. On the other hand, vapid model Adam relishes giving the audience what they want – strutting, hair waving, and bare chest.

After their most recent event goes sideways, Loretta is kidnapped by the villainous rich guy with a so-called gender-neutral name of Abigail Fairfax (Daniel Radcliffe). He’s read her latest book and needs her help in locating the ‘Crown of Fire’ hidden somewhere on a remote island he purchased for this reason. Things have to move quickly before the volcano erupts and buries the treasure. At this point, Adam is committed to rescuing Loretta and proving that he’s more than a pretty face. Loretta’s stressed out literary agent Beth (Da’Vine Joy Randolph, DOLEMITE IS MY NAME, 2019) is determined to save her writer-asset, while the newly hired social media director (Patti Harrison) acts goofy (and deserved better lines).

It’s regrettable, yet a sign of the times, that (2-time Oscar winner) Brad Pitt’s cameo is included in the trailer. This should have been a pleasant surprise for viewers, and instead is spoiled by the clip. He has fun with his role as former Navy Seal and meditation partner with Adam, as the two work towards Loretta’s rescue. The time on the island combines the adventure sequences with the slow-build of the romantic bond between Loretta and Adam, and both actors do their thing. It’s mostly Mr. Radcliffe who seems a bit out of place as he goes big in his role as villain, when some subtlety might have played better. Then again, there is nothing subtle about this production, including the scenes with Beth and an oddball pilot with a goat-fetish played by Oscar Nunez (“The Office”).

Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum can play these characters in their sleep, and to their credit, they both seem engaged and willing to put forth the necessary effort. Tatum especially embraces the duality of a preening cover boy and the sensitive type out to prove he has substance. It’s an easy film to criticize, but why would you? It’s meant to be harmless fun and bring joy to movie lovers. It’s totally fine to make a silly formulaic movie when your objective is to make a silly formulaic movie.

Opening in theaters on March 25, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER


OUR BRAND IS CRISIS (2015)

October 29, 2015

our brand is crisis Greetings again from the darkness. The world of political campaigns and elections is a never-ending treasure trove of material for movies. It’s a subject ripe for parody, satire, comedy, suspense and documentaries.  Need proof?  How about this widely varied list: The Manchurian Candidate, Bob Roberts, Wag the Dog, Bulworth, Welcome to Mooseport, and The Ides of March.  Director David Gordon Green has a resume equally as varied, ranging from Pineapple Express (2008) to Manglehorn (2014).

This wide spectrum of possibilities seems to have confused screenwriter Peter Straughan (the excellent Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) who used Rachel Boynton’s 2005 documentary of the same name as inspiration. It seems to be both a comedy that’s not too funny and a drama that not very dramatic. Casting Sandra Bullock in the lead probably created a certain feeling of security with the filmmakers, as they assumed audiences would laugh along at such creative moments as her predictable pratfall from a private jet, the sunglasses-on-the-nose look of consternation, and the rah-rah speech given to a group of campaign volunteers who don’t speak English. Even fans of Ms. Bullock will recognize the laziness.

Alvin Lee and Ten Years After delivered the anthem “I’d Love to Change the World”, and never before this movie had I placed it in such a negative manner … how the United States sticks its nose where it doesn’t belong in international elections. Ms. Bullock’s character Jane is a political strategist brought out of self-imposed exile to run the campaign of Bolivia’s former President (played by Joaquim de Almeida). See he is far behind the leader in the polls – a progressive candidate whose campaign is being run by Bullock’s long-time rival Pat Candy (played by Billy Bob Thornton). Let the juicy rivalry games begin!

The only problem is … it’s a wasted rivalry filled with mostly lame games and it’s often quite plodding (just like real politics!). The character of Jane is based on the real life efforts of James Carville to influence South American elections, and yet it’s Pat Candy who sports the look of Carville. The supporting cast is filled with talent: Anthony Mackie, Ann Dowd, Scoot McNairy, and Zoe Kazan, yet none are given much to do other than play second fiddle to Bullock.

While the script offers no real surprises or twists, and the forced “message” at the end could be guessed by most any viewer 10 minutes in, it’s the amateurish ploys that make this one score high on the annoyance scale. Having Ms. Bullock sport the only blonde follicles in Bolivia, the over-use of super slow-motion to create some unnecessary effect, and using the word “crisis” the way Tarantino uses the f-word, all combine to give the film a very cheesy look and feel … and we aren’t even rewarded with a single memorable exchange between Bullock and Billy Bob. One thing for sure … this is not the garden spot of Bolivia.

watch the trailer:

 


GRAVITY (2013)

October 9, 2013

gravity1 Greetings again from the darkness. Gravity is a visually stunning film that creates a you-are-there-in-space feeling unlike any other.  That said, hopefully you aren’t expecting yet another in the seemingly endless stream of unadulterated praise fests for Alfonso Cuaron’s critically beloved and audience pleasing film. While the mass appeal is certainly understandable, I’ve never been one to sit back and accept the surface value.

There are two elements for discussion here: the visually stunning and technical marvel from a filmmaking perspective, and the emotionally-manipulating and somewhat emptiness of the narrative story-telling and characters. On the technical front, one would be hard-pressed to come up with a more impressive film. It is simply breath-taking, gravity2especially when seen in the format it should be seen … 3D IMAX. Rarely, if ever, has space seemed more real, more beautiful and more ominous. From the extended opening take (Cuaron is known for his long takes), to the numerous shots of Planet Earth (from dominating the screen, to reflections in helmet shields), we are drawn in to the space walking and perils of Kowalski (George Clooney) and Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock).  Even Carl Sagan and his “pale blue dot” musings would admire these space-based visuals of our home planet.

From an entertainment viewpoint, the film works as a high-stress, thrilling space mission gone bad and ultimate survival story. What left me feeling a bit distracted and hence, quite annoyed, was the often eye-rolling dialogue seemingly designed to force our connection with the Clooney and, especially, Bullock characters. I prefer to experience my own emotions in both real life and in movies … obvious cues and manipulating tugs through weak character development drives me away from, rather than towards the desired connectivity. My issues with the film are not related to the numerous scientific issues identified by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and astronaut Buzz Aldrin. This is all explained away by Mr. Cuaron’s statement that the film is “not a documentary“. If we can be cool with Forrest Gump creating the smiley face, we can accept that Sandra Bullock can navigate her way between space stations with a fire extinguisher.  What I can’t be cool with are cheap writing ploys that tell me I must feel a specific emotion at a particular time for a certain character.

gravity3 Despite this, it’s tough to argue against the technical marvel and thrilling (computer generated) experience created here. The 3D adds depth of field and adds a touch of realism, rather than the gimmicky tricks we often see with the format. With only a couple of jarring exceptions, Steven Price’s score is minimal and complimentary to the quietness of space. Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men) re-teams with Cuaron for the extraordinary look (with probably numerous technical Oscars on the way). Some of the symbolism was a bit overdone – recurring umbilical imagery for the re-birth, but it’s done to ensure no viewer misses the point. Finally, I got a kick out of Ed Harris’ voice coming from Mission Control (think back to The Right Stuff and Apollo 13).

I would encourage you to seek out the largest screen with the best sound … 3D IMAX is greatly preferred.  Yes, it will cost you more than you should pay for a movie ticket, but the payoff is significant.  This one won’t be the same on your ipad or even your home theater system. It’s the first step forward in movie technology since Avatar.  If you can sit back and let the movie guide you, perhaps you will avoid the frustrations I experienced.

**NOTE: Although many critics have already proclaimed this the best picture of the year and are saying Sandra Bullock is a shoe-in for Best Actress, I will not be onboard with either.  I found it fascinating and would even label it a “must see”, but truly great movies have characters and stories that draw me to them.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have access to a theater with a huge screen and great sound system – preferably 3D IMAX

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you miss its theatrical run … watching it on your laptop or ipad 6 months from now will be time wasted

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xgGPTa7-vlE

 


EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE

January 22, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ten years since the September 11 attack, and it’s still difficult to talk about, write about, or make a movie about … and certainly difficult to critique any of those attempts. Since I haven’t read the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer (who also wrote “Everything is Illuminated”), my comments will be related only to this film directed by Stephen Daldry (The Hours, The Reader) and the script by Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button).

Two positive things stand out for me in the film. Young Thomas Horn as Oskar Schell is an interesting and talented newcomer, and someone I enjoyed watching on screen for most of two hours. Approximately 70 years his senior, Max von Sydow is captivating as the speechless “Renter” from Oskar’s grandmother’s apartment. The two are quite an entertaining pairing on their road-trip through NYC.

 The basic story is that Oskar’s father (Tom Hanks) is one of the victims of the WTC attacks. Through flashbacks we see that he was a world-class father to Oskar, who may very well be inflicted with Asperger’s Syndrome. Either way, Oskar is intelligent way beyond his years and possesses quite a curious and analytical mind. When his father dies, Oskar is convinced he can make sense of things by finding the lock that fits a key he found in his father’s closet. He assumes it’s another puzzle his father laid out for him with the only clue being “Black” written on the envelope.

While it is interesting to see how Oskar organizes his mission of contacting the 472 Black’s noted in the NYC phone book, it seems mostly a writing trick to get this unusual youngster mingling with “normal” citizens. When he teams with von Sydow, the energy level picks up, but we can still feel the wheels turning on the machinery to create tear-inducing moments. These moments are EVERYWHERE and include Oskar being oblivious to his hurtful ways with his mom (Sandra Bullock).

 The support work is excellent and includes John Goodman, Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright. Young Mr. Horn is best known for his winning Jeopardy during “Kid’s Week”, so he is obviously real-life smart as well as on screen talented. This story is just too preposterous to take seriously. How many parents would let their 11 year old wander the streets of NYC? What reaction would this kid receive as he confronts strangers while jingling his tambourine so as to calm his nerves? Just too much melodramatic storybook stretching to make this a story worth telling in regards to the September 11 events. However, if you are need of a few good cries, this one tees it up for you.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see an exciting newcomer in Thomas Horn OR it’s just been too long since you had a good cry (or 3 or 4)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer movie/story manipulations not be quite so obvious

watch the trailer: