HOTEL ARTEMIS (2018)

June 8, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The feature film directorial debut of Drew Pearce is original and clever, while teasing with hope for a bit more than it delivers. Mr. Pearce is best known for writing the screenplay for IRON MAN 3, and now as a first time director, he shows enough promise to leave us interested in what comes next.

The film is set in dystopian Los Angeles a mere 10 years in the future. The streets are flooded with desperate rioters after a mega-corporation shuts off the clean water supply. The company is the film’s real villain, and the only one that The Nurse (Jodie Foster) can’t treat. See, she runs Hotel Artemis, an underground hospital for top tier criminals – the element that can’t just pop into the local community clinic for treatment on the latest bullet hole or knife wound. These patients follow a subscription plan and must stay current on their dues to gain admission.

The Nurse forgoes any attempt at personal vanity and is instead an agoraphobic, booze-chugging, (mostly) stick-to-the-rules type, who pops in anti-anxiety tapes and ear buds whenever her pulse quickens. She has run the place since it opened 22 years prior and is assisted by a mountain of man named Everest (get it?) played well by Dave Bautista. He’s a combination bodyguard, bouncer, handyman and assistant healthcare professional (check his badge).

The set design by Ramsey Avery deserves special mention as the Hotel Artemis is quietly housed in the shell of a former grand art deco hotel, now a victim to the city’s carnage – though the neon sign remains illuminated. Its vacation spot-themed rooms are a sight to behold, despite the frustratingly low lighting. Occupants are incognito and use their room names as identifiers. Sterling K Brown is Waikiki, a philosophical bank robber who dragged his brother Honolulu (Brian Tyree Henry) here for treatment after a heist went wrong. Acapulco (the always energetic Charlie Day) is a crass, motor-mouthed arms dealer, while Nice (Sofia Boutella, THE MUMMY) is a freakishly skilled assassin.

The stress level picks up when the biggest crime lord of Los Angeles shows up seriously wounded. Known as The Wolf King, an admittedly bad choice for a nickname, Jeff Goldblum brings some smooth-talking toughness, humor and twisted class to the proceedings. More than a few tentacles are attached to The Wolf King and other folks we’ve previously met, not the least of which is a very special ink pen stolen by Honolulu. Mix in an injured cop (Jenny Slate) with a personal link to The Nurse and her constantly alluded to tragic backstory, and the movie puts off a Graphic novel vibe … missing only the off-the-cuff insanity. It’s just a bit too grounded for its own good.

The high tech/low rent feel forces us to recall BLADE RUNNER and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, but of course, this film isn’t at the level of either, as it lacks top tier suspense. It is a terrific reminder of what a talented actress two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster is, and what a shame that we haven’t seen her in such a substantial screen role since 2013’s ELYSIUM. She really sinks her teeth into this odd character, and more than the action scenes, she keeps us interested the entire run time. The score is a bit too heavy on the droning electronic bass line, and while the Florida joke and nod to John Phillips (The Wolf King, “California Dreamin’”) earns some bonus points, it’s really the performance of Ms. Foster and the set design that saves a too-safe script.

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BLACK PANTHER (2018)

February 15, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Adaptations of Superheroes, Comic Books, and Graphic Novels have been driving the movie theatre box office for a few years now. Where the financial success of a film was once measured in tens of millions, it’s now hundreds of millions. Beyond that, these enormous productions are pressured to make political and social statements … providing the hope of which real life leaders seem to fail. This latest from Marvel and director Ryan Coogler (CREED, FRUITVALE STATION), carries all of that plus the expectations of an entire gender and race. It’s a heavy burden for a comic book character, however it seems, regardless of one’s perspective, it’s likely the film delivers, satisfies, and … oh yeah … entertains.

The bar has been set so high for action sequences and special effects, that we take the great for granted and only speak up on those that falter. What allows this film to take its place among the best of the genre is a combination of story depth and the payoff for showing us a world we haven’t previously seen. The cultural aspects of the (mythical) African country of Wakanda are not only interesting, but the setting itself is breath-taking. An explosion of color, texture and technology blended with intriguing and multi-dimensional characters bring the film to life and draw us into this wonderland of tradition, culture and humanity.

It seems ridiculous to speak of a comic book film in these terms, but the number of talking points raised during its runtime are too many and too varied to discuss in this format. What we can make clear is that it’s cool to watch an entire movie where people of color and women are strong, confident, and intelligent. Chadwick Boseman has played Thurgood Marshall (MARSHALL), James Brown (GET ON UP), and Jackie Robinson (42), and here he takes on a fictional icon in King T’Challa/Black Panther. He perfectly captures the pensive nature of a King balancing tradition with the needs of his people to evolve and transition. His chief adversary “Killmonger” is played terrifically by Michael B Jordan (CREED, FRUITVALE STATION) as a man out for revenge and power. For most movies this head to head battle would be enough … but not this time.

Lupita Nyong’o (Oscar winner for 12 YEARS A SLAVE), Danai Gurira (“The Walking Dead”), and relative newcomer Letitia Wright play Nakia, Okoye, and Shuri respectively; a triumvirate of three of the strongest women you’ve likely ever seen on screen. Nakia is the love interest, but also carrying out her own humanitarian missions, while also proving to be beyond adequate as a soldier. Okoye is the ultimate warrior and absolutely loyal to her country, while Nakia (T’Challa’s sister) is a contemporary version of James Bond’s Q – the ultimate technology whiz, and one with the zippiest zingers. Any of these characters could be the basis for a standalone movie, but together they elevate this to something much more than a couple of dudes in sleek suits fighting.

Martin Freeman (THE HOBBIT), Daniel Kaluuya (GET OUT), Sterling K Brown (“This is Us”), Angela Bassett, and Forest Whitaker are all contributors, and Andy Serkis is a frenzied standout in an all-too-brief turn as Klaue. The strong cast delivers even in the few moments when the script lags. In fact, the only piece of this puzzle that didn’t seem to fit was the traditional hand-to-hand combat to determine the next king. Why is it that a nation so advanced still relies on primitive courses of decision-making?  Perhaps this is merely commentary on our society, though providing a more intellectual solution would have been in line with the rest of the story.

The world of Wakanda is stunning. The costumes are sleek, colorful and fascinating. The characters are multi-dimensional. The action sequences are top notch (armored rhinos!). The cinematographer is Rachel Morrison, who recently made history by being the first woman to receive an Oscar nomination for cinematography (MUDBOUND). It’s these factors that allow Mr. Coogler’s film to achieve the level of importance that most comic book films wouldn’t dare to strive for. On top of everything, it accomplishes the one thing I demand from these type of movies … it’s quite fun to watch!

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MARSHALL (2017)

October 12, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. The question must be asked: is the movie worthy of the man? The man was the first attorney for the NAACP. He won 29 of the 32 cases he argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, including the ground-breaking 1954 Brown v. Board of Education (separate but equal public education). This man was a trailblazer for Civil Rights, and in 1967 became the first African-American Supreme Court Justice. This man was, of course, Thurgood Marshall … a man who unquestionably deserves not just a movie, but a really good and important one.

Chadwick Boseman has taken on film versions of such icons as Jackie Robinson in 42 and James Brown in GET ON UP, so he likely jumped at the chance to play the revered figure, Thurgood Marshall. Mr. Boseman has true movie star screen presence, and supplies the young Mr. Marshall with a self-assured swagger that accompanies a brilliant legal mind – a mind that refused to be ignored during a time it was desperately needed. Lest he be labeled a superhero, the film does portray Marshall smoking and drinking, while also hinting at his carousing. The common flaws of a great man.

It’s 1941 and the young (33 years old) Marshall is the lone NAACP attorney, so he spends his time ping-ponging around the country fighting for fair trials for those African-Americans accused simply because they aren’t white. He works only for “innocent” people and his efforts during this time were crucial to the Civil Rights movement gaining attention and legitimacy. Most of the film centers on a case in Connecticut (no, not the Jim Crow south) where a black man, Joseph Spell (Sterling K Brown), is accused of sexual assault of a “respectable” married white woman, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson). If you are reminded of the great book and film TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, you must know that those literary and cinematic standards are such that few can ever hope to reach.

What follows is not one of the more dramatic or tension-filled cinematic courtroom dramas. There is simply too much levity for the film to be classified as a historical heavyweight. That said, the man and his story are fascinating, and though director Reginald Hudlin chooses a deft touch rather than a sledge hammer, it’s likely the wise choice if the goal is to entertain, while also educating the masses to Marshall’s early career. Josh Gad co-stars as Marshall’s co-counsel Sam Friedman, a specialist in legal technicalities within the insurance industry. Boseman and Gad have nice chemistry (at times it feels like a buddy movie), and as a Jew in those times, Friedman is himself stuck in limbo between staunch racism and acceptance by the white community.

James Cromwell plays Judge Foster, yet another man caught between the old world he has lived in his entire life and the fast-changing society and legal system that permits him to silence Marshall, while also forcing (somewhat) fair treatment of the accused Spell. Dan Stevens (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST) is Loren Willis, the disgusted and disgusting prosecutor. This character is so cartoonish that the only thing missing is a neon necklace that flashes “racist” as he speaks. Sophia Bush has a brief, yet important scene and Sterling K Brown (as Mr. Spell) has the film’s most heart-breaking moment as he sits on the stand and explains why he lied.

Director Reginald Hudlin seems like an odd choice for the project. He has been working mostly in TV since back-to-back-to-back bombs BOOMERANG (Eddie Murphy), THE LADIES MAN (Tim Meadow) and SERVING SARA (Matthew Perry). Mr. Hudlin has experienced more success as a Producer, having been Oscar nominated for DJANGO UNCHAINED. Here he works with the father and son screenwriters Jacob Koskoff and Michael Koskoff. The elder Michael is a well respected criminal attorney and legal historian, and certainly understands the expectations that come with offering a public look at a near-mythical figure … especially one as revered as Thurgood Marshall.

This isn’t so much a movie about the icon as it is about a young man on the path to greatness and importance (he served on the Supreme Court from 1967-1991). The soundtrack is filled with jazz which complements the light-hearted approach, and further distances from any semblance of “heavy” or “historical”. Director Hudlin adds a contemporary touch by having Trayvon Martin’s parents (Sybrina Fulton, Tracy Martin) appear in a scene near the end. On the downside, multiple upshot camera angles are designed to make his lead character look larger than life. The truth is, Thurgood Marshall required no help in looming large. Hopefully this mainstream approach pays off and many are introduced to the legacy of a man who is more than worthy of this movie … and another.

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