VENOM (2018)

October 4, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. For those movie-goers who believe there is no need for another comic book movie, you now have People’s Exhibit A. This is the 5th Marvel film of 2018 (yep, that’s a new one every other month!), and it’s the first one proving challenging to say much of anything that is positive or complimentary.

It should be noted that this is not a Superhero movie, but rather a film based on the Marvel Comic characters and stories of Todd McFarlane and David Michelinie. Four writers are credited with the screenplay, and it seems they either needed more or fewer. Director Ruben Fleisher (ZOMBIELAND, 2009) apparently worked with what he was given, hoping the stellar cast or the CGI could salvage the project.

The always terrific Tom Hardy (Bane in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES) stars as Eddie Brock, a renowned investigative reporter popular for breaking stories of corruption and fraud. Unfortunately, he has a significant lapse in ethics – an unusually forthright comment from Hollywood on today’s media. This lapse costs Brock his job, his girlfriend (4 time Oscar nominee Michelle Williams), and any semblance of normalcy. While investigating the unimaginable human-alien experiments of megalomaniac Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), Brock takes on the powers of the symbiote (Venom) and spends the rest of the movie either trying to control these powers, sitting back and letting the powers take over, or exchanging frat boy dialogue with the possessive being who picked up all nuances of the English language pretty darn quickly.

Venom was last seen in the lackluster SPIDER-MAN 3 and was played by Topher Grace. This time out, Venom is the focus and Spidey is nowhere to be found or mentioned … at least not until post credits (a terrific animated sequence). The CGI is at times very impressive – reminiscent of something John Carpenter might have ordered. Two sides of the Transamerica Pyramid provide a nice visual, however, the effects are not at all consistent. Far too often … especially the battle between Venom and Riot …it’s just plain messy (like letting a group of toddlers play with black and gray slime).

The film’s saving grace could have been the interactions between Mr. Hardy and Ms. Williams, both stellar actors, but the dialogue and situations are so ridiculous that even those scenes don’t click. The moments that draw laughter from the audience may or may not have been by design, but there are far too many ‘forced comedic moments’ that just fall flat.

Composer Ludwig Goransson (CREED, BLACK PANTHER) delivers some nice moments with the score, but the Eminem song over the closing credits sounds amateurish. The film is very loud, and not so much lacking direction as it is burdened with too many directions and misfires. A comic book movie’s first priority is to be fun, and this one just isn’t much of that. Surprisingly, the film is rated PG-13 rather than R, so the excessive violence (and there is plenty) never actually spills a drop of blood. Perhaps the goal was to make a Marvel movie so uninspiring that BLACK PANTHER’s Oscar chances would be enhanced.  Otherwise, there’s no excuse.

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DUNKIRK (2017)

July 19, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Even for us frequent movie-goers, a truly great film is a rare and emotional experience. Leave it to Christopher Nolan, one of the finest film makers working today, to deliver a World War II masterpiece centered on a remarkable and historic evacuation, rather than one of the epic battles that more directly led to an Allied victory. The result is a spectacular, stunning and relentlessly intense assault on our eyes, ears and emotions … it’s a horrific thing of artistic beauty.

Mr. Nolan chooses a triptych approach to tell the May/June 1940 Dunkirk story from three distinctly different perspectives: The Mole, The Sea, and The Air. The Mole (term for protective sea walls) is the “by land” segment, and it shows nearly 400,000 soldiers lined up on the beach – nervously waiting to be either rescued or massacred. The Sea puts us not on the deck of the Navy destroyers, but rather alongside the citizen volunteers who answered the call to ferry men off the beach with own pleasure vessels. The Air plops us inside the Spitfire cockpits of two Royal Air Force pilots battling low fuel as they attempt to protect their fellow soldiers below. This 3-part film harmony expertly captures the disorientation of war by shuffling between the three segments, and varying the timelines and sequence of each.

This all happened pretty early in the war, as Winston Churchill had only become Prime Minister a few weeks prior. It should be noted that Mr. Nolan purposefully avoids the usual war room blustery (we see neither Churchill nor Hitler, and there is little mention of the infamous Halt Order) and allows the action to tell the story. Instead, his focus on the (very) young men being sent to battle makes a clear political statement on the absurdity of war. One of “The Sea” volunteers (an excellent Mark Rylance) delivers the message when he states it’s the old men running the war, so he can’t be expected to just sit back as young sons are sent to fight and die.

Despite the epic look, feel and sound of the film and the massive scale of the event, this film is surprisingly at its best in the small moments of heroism and the dogged determination of individuals to survive. Minimal dialogue allows the horrors of war to take center screen. Danger and death are at every turn – bombings, torpedoes, drowning, gunfire, and most any imaginable peril is ever-present. We witness PTSD (shell-shock) in the form of Cillian Murphy’s shivering rescued soldier, and are reminded that every young man present will be either dead or scarred for life. No one escapes war unscathed.

The opening sequence finds young Fionn Whitehead and his squad being targeted with gunfire as German leaflets fall from the sky. The leaflets are maps outlining the hopelessness as German forces have them surrounded. The film is meticulously researched and historically based, though the few characters we get to know are fictionalized accounts. The practical effects throughout are breath-taking and much of it was filmed on location at the Dunkirk beach. There will likely be some complaints regarding the scarcity of female characters and those of color, but the technical aspects of the film are beyond reproach – although the French might have preferred their military receive a bit more attention. Hans Zimmer’s score is unique and searing as it perfectly captures the intensity of the film. His use of a ticking watch only perpetuates the constant feeling of running out of time. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and Editor Lee Smith prove why they are among the best at their profession.

Given the spectacle of the action (if possible, see it in IMAX or 70mm), it’s remarkable how we still manage to get to know some of the characters. From The Mole segment, Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard and Harry Styles represent the young soldiers, while Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy play officers. Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden are piloting the Spitfires, while Mark Rylance, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney, and Cillian Murphy are aboard the rescue yacht. Nolan regular and good luck charm Michael Caine can be recognized as the voice on Air Force radio. There is a 1958 film with the same title, and it stars John Mills and Richard Attenborough. The connection (other than the Dunkirk title) is Sir Attenborough’s grandson Will appears in this current film.

The horrors and impact of World War II continue to be an abundant garden – ripe for the picking when it comes to movies. Over the past 70 years there have been numerous approaches to telling part of the story that redefined the world: Judgment at Nuremberg (legal aftermath), Casablanca (romance), I Was a Male War Bride (comedy), Tora! Tora! Tora! and From Here to Eternity (Pearl Harbor), Shoah (documentary), Schindler’s List and Son of Saul (holocaust), Downfall (Hitler), The Great Escape (entertainment), Patton (bio), The Pianist (personal), Saving Private Ryan (Normandy), Das Boot (U-boat), The Thin Red Line (Guadalcanal), and Letter From Iwo Jima (two opposing perspectives). Each of these, and many others, have their place in War movie history, and now Christopher Nolan’s film belongs among the best.

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THE REVENANT (2015)

December 28, 2015

the revenant Greetings again from the darkness. “Keep breathing.” A flashback in the opening sequence has Hugh Glass whispering the phrase as advice to his young son Hawk, the product of Glass and his beloved Pawnee bride. The phrase has a recurring role throughout the film … possibly serving as a courtesy reminder from director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu to the moviegoers mesmerized (and nearly traumatized) by the incredible brutality of what is on screen.

It’s a master class in filmmaking by those at the top of their game. Inarritu is the reigning Oscar winning director for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), and he has re-teamed with the reigning Oscar winning cinematographer from that movie, Emmanuel Lubezki. Two of the finest actors of their generation, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, strip away any semblance of pampered movie stardom to deliver ultra-realistic performances in a story “based in part” on the true to life novel by Michael Punke.

An early action sequence is startling in its ferocity as Arikara surround and attack a group of hunters and trappers, and the whoosh of arrows – many of which find their mark – abruptly drag us into a world that we are unfamiliar with and certainly unprepared for. It’s early 19th century U.S. frontier, and just about everyone and everything can kill you.  Providing just enough time for us to pry our fingers off the armrests, Inarritu stuns us with what is undoubtedly the most fantastic grizzly bear attack on a movie star ever filmed. In what appears to be a single take (which also happens to be the number of breaths I took), Mama Grizzly treats Leonardo the way a young puppy treats its first chew toy.  Scratched, chewed, tossed and stomped.  This scene is savage and brutal, and sets the stage for the true, yet still unbelievable odyssey of survival by frontiersman Hugh Glass.

Tom Hardy excels as the calmly psychotic villain Fitzgerald, though some of his early hillbilly-tinged dialogue is difficult to catch. His hulking presence fits with our imagined look of the frontiersman of the era … tough and unforgiving nearly beyond belief. His bullying of youngster Jim Bridger (played by Will Poulter) and power struggles with Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) are at frightening levels of intensity. Fans of Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds will smile as they recognize the name of mountain man Jim Bridger … though that’s one of the few smiles offered by this 156 minute gut-wrenching ordeal. It would not be surprising if DiCaprio’s mantel sports an Oscar in a few months. He is that superb in a role that has nothing to do with good looks or charm.

A tale of survival. A quest for revenge.  It’s both of those, as well as a reminder that nature can be both beautiful and brutal. Some of the photography is almost poetic, and often reminds of the work of director Terrence Malick.  And in the blink of an eye, that moment is shattered by the torrential force of river rapids carrying Glass over the waterfall, or his taking a horseback ride off a steep cliff (one of the most dramatic shots of the film). The journey of Glass is unknown in distance or time in the movie, but there is no question as to the numerous struggles with the elements and the raw physicality required to persevere. If you can avoid diverting your eyes, there are visuals here that will be sincerely appreciated – even as you squirm, cringe and moan throughout.

From a technical standpoint, the film was shot on location in Canada and Argentina using only natural lighting, and emphasizing aspects of nature that often are overlooked. The sound of arrows, bears, and even DiCaprio’s breathing are profound and crucial to the overall effect, as are the animal skin garments and other costumes. It’s impossible to tell where CGI meets reality, but the visceral experience will be quite unique for most viewers … and not soon forgotten.

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MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015)

May 17, 2015

 

mad max Greetings again from the darkness. Thirty years have passed since we last saw Mel Gibson donning the leather in 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, which was of course, the third in the franchise after Mad Max (1979), and Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981). Over the years, rumors have persisted that writer/director George Miller was going to add to the franchise and take full advantage of today’s high-tech movie making techniques by securing the budget necessary for a true blockbuster. It may have taken 3 decades, but Mr. Miller’s dream is realized with his $100 million version (compared to $300,000 budget on the first one) that will undoubtedly satisfy the Mad Max fans, while also reminding the industry what an action movie can be (Michael Bay’s corneas may burst into flames watching this).

Tom Hardy plays Max Rockatansky, a loner haunted by a tragic past seen only through millisecond flashbacks that occur at both inopportune and opportune moments. Hardy has the physicality to pull off the role, but despite the title and the history, this film belongs at least as much to Charlize Theron who literally drives the story as Imperator Furiosa. Tired of living under tyrannical rule, Furiosa frees a group of “breeders” played by Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough (Elvis Presley’s granddaughter), Abbey Lee and Courtney Eaton. Their plan is to escape across the desert (well, everything is desert these days) and return to Furiosa’s childhood home known as “the green place”.

This is pretty much a two hour chase sequence featuring monster vehicles, soaring motorcycles, massive gunfire, screen-filling explosions, and enough stunt work to amaze even the casual movie-goer. All of this is accompanied by ear-bursting high-octane music courtesy JunkieXL (the first Max films were scored by Brian May of Queen). Some of this “music” is raw heavy-metal shredding occurring live on one of the chase vehicles – quite a sight and sound gag. It should be noted that stunt work is the surprise here. These days, most movies rely on CGI effects, while Mr. Miller mixes an extraordinary number of old school stunts with the compliment of CGI for such things as an overwhelming sandstorm and Ms. Theron’s mechanical arm. It’s a fascinating blend of old and new.

John Seale certainly deserves mention. He is an Academy Award winning cinematographer for The English Patient, and has also been DP on films such as Rain Man, Witness, Dead Poet’s Society and The Firm. He has four Oscar nominations and is not the first cinematographer one would think of when putting together a huge action film; however, the choice pays off in what is a beautifully shot film – both in space and close up scenes. It brings an element of propriety to what on the surface appears to be out-of-control, non-stop chaos.

The post-apocalyptic look and feel is accented by periodic splashes of color that prevent the usual bleakness from others in this genre. Many will be surprised at the minimal dialogue, but the straightforward plot removes any need for extended conversations from folks simply trying to survive.

Nicholas Hoult (Warm Bodies) may be the most interesting of all characters, and probably has the most lines of dialogue (while still not saying much). He is a slave caught up in the dream of serving his master, while then re-discovering a modicum of humanity buried somewhere deep inside. Fans of the series will also cheer the presence of Hugh Keays-Byrne who plays the very striking Immortan Joe, and also played Toe Cutter in the original film 37 years ago.

Filled with nostalgia and respect for the original series, this fourth entry also provides a new palette for a new generation of fans. The biggest change comes from the focus on strong women who are out to change, or at least escape, a world rotted by the male lust for power. It’s difficult to say insanity rules this world, because so little sanity exists that rational beings are non-existent.

George Miller will always be known as the creator of the Mad Max series, but we shouldn’t forget that he also directed the Happy Feet movies, as well as Babe: Pig in the City. Perhaps those two personalities allow him to create a world as crazed and chaotic as we see in his latest Max film. Mostly we can feel happy for him that he was afforded the opportunity realize his filmmaker dream … a nice reward for 30 years of patience.

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THE DROP (2014)

September 13, 2014

drop Greetings again from the darkness. Much of what I write here contradicts my long maintained stance that a strong story/script is the basis for any movie worth it’s proverbial weight. This neighborhood crime drama does not spin a twisty plot. Nor does it flash fascinating and colorful mobsters. Instead, it’s the acting that elevates the film to the point of neo-noir must see.

By now you have heard that this is James Gandolfini’s final movie. He passed away while director Michael Roskam (Bullhead) was in editing mode. Gandolfini plays Cousin Marv, a would-be wise-guy who never-really-was.  Now he is bitter and desperate, in a beaten down kind of way. As a farewell, Gandolfini leaves us a final reminder of what a powerful screen presence he was, and what a terrific feel for character and scene he possessed.

Beyond Gandolfini, the real attraction and the main reason to see the film is the outstanding and mesmerizing performance of Tom Hardy. In many ways, his bartender Bob is the polar opposite of his infamous Bane from The Dark Knight Rises. Quasi-effeminate in his vocal deliverings, and moving with a slow, stilted shuffle, Bob is one of the least imposing guys.  The kind that you would likely look right through. At least that’s the first impression. Hardy is so nuanced, we aren’t even certain when his character transitions and exposes his true make-up. When he does, it’s the highlight of the film.

Noomi Rapace, in yet another intriguing turn, plays local waitress Nadia, who befriends Bob after he rescues an abused puppy. Since the movie is based on Dennis Lehane’s short story “Animal Rescue”, it’s no surprise that the main characters each share a need to be rescued. Nadia’s ex-boyfriend is played to full psycho and creepy effect by Matthias Schoenaerts (so great in Rust and Bone, 2012). The scenes between Schoenaerts and Hardy show the movie at its tension-filled best.

As with most neighborhood crime dramas, there are many secrets, local legends, and allegiances in doubt. The players are weary and dream of either better times or ending the misery. Mr. Lehane wrote the novels that led to some other fine films: Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, and Shutter Island. He has a feel for ultra-realistic characters, and his material depends on extraordinary acting for fulfillment. This slow boil benefits from some of the best acting we could ask for.

**NOTE: all due respect to the late, great James Gandolfini … we get a glimpse of him “running” from a crime scene, and his athletic prowess does detract from his otherwise imposing screen presence.

**NOTE: how good must this be if I went the entire review without mentioning Ann Dowd or John Ortiz … two excellent actors who play small, vital roles?

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you need further proof that Tom Hardy is one of the more talented actors working today OR you bask in the atmospheric neighborhood crime drama genre (this is a good one) OR you just want to see a really cute pit bull puppy.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: like me, you find it impossible to “unsee” a glimpse of James Gandolfini running on screen, in spite of his towering presence and acting ability.

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LOCKE (2014)

April 15, 2014

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL (2014)

locke Greetings again from the darkness. Most movies that take place within a confined space are outright thrillers that usually take full advantage of helpless and claustrophobic feelings and desperate actions. Think back to Duel, Phone Booth and Buried. A ticking clock and lack of a safe escape route had us sweating bullets with Dennis Weaver, Colin Farrell and Ryan Reynolds. This entry from the Dallas International Film Festival takes a much different approach.

Noted British writer Steven Knight also directs this one, and rather than nail-biting tension, we get a pretty interesting character study. Mr. Knight has written some impressive screenplays: Dirty Pretty Things, Amazing Grace, and Eastern Promises. Utilizing every ounce of his writing expertise, he keeps us connected to Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) as he drives on the freeway with intermittent rain being his biggest physical obstacle. There are no high speed chases. No stunts. No weapons. Ivan is not being followed by a spy, a hit man or anyone else. He is merely driving and talking on the phone via Bluetooth.

In what could be considered the ultimate film gimmick, Tom Hardy is the only actor to appear on screen. His Ivan Locke is not just the only major character. He is the ONLY one. All supporting work and conflict is provided by a multitude of voices on the other end of a phone call. There is no need for me to delve into the story or the plot, but you should know that the situation Ivan finds himself in is not some creative web of criminal deceit … instead it’s his penance for one poor decision. That poor decision has him in a tough spot with very poor timing.

For those that wonder if Bane from The Dark Knight Rises has the acting chops to hold our attention, a reminder of Tom Hardy’s fine and varied work should alleviate concerns: Warrior, Inception, Lawless, Bronson, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. He can act and he can make a character his own, just as he does with Ivan Locke.

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LAWLESS (2012)

September 3, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Gangster and family crime dramas are always a favorite film genre, especially when “based on a true story”, as this one claims. The story comes straight from the novel “The Wettest County in the World” by Matt Bondurant, the grandson of Jack Bondurant, portrayed in the film by Shia LaBeouf. The screenplay and direction come courtesy of the latest collaboration from Nick Cave (alt-Rocker) and John Hillcoat (The Road).

The cast is deep and talented. The three Bondurant brothers are played by Tom Hardy (Forrest), Jason Clarke (Howard) and LaBeouf (Jack). The brothers are moonshiners who also run their own bootlegging business in Franklin County, Virginia during prohibition and the great depression. They are assisted by a moonshine savant named Cricket (Dane DeHaan as a dead ringer for Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape). A beautiful former Chicago dancer played by Jessica Chastain stumbles into their café while inexplicably searching for a quieter life. Mia Wasikowska is the preacher’s daughter with a rebellious streak who gets courted by Jack. Gary Oldman is terrific, though sadly limited in screen time, as the notorious gangster Floyd Banner, and Guy Pearce plays Special Detective Charlie Rakes. Rakes is a corrupt, outlandishly colorful character out of Chicago who is on assignment to either get a cut of the business or kill everyone in the process … all while smelling like a “nancy” and keeping blood off his tailored suits. He does this with the worst movie haircut since Anton Chigurh. Pearce plays him like a mix of a Christoph Waltz villain and Willem Dafoe’s detective in The Boondock Saints. Quite a visual.

 With this cast and a very stylistic look provided by wonderful camera work, color scheme, and costumes, it’s a bit confounding that the movie isn’t a little better than it is. The war between outlaws and crooked lawmen, splashed with minor love stories and interesting characters seems to have a gap. Apparently there are too many vying for too little screen time. Gary Oldman’s character has a stunning and violent screen entrance, but then is wasted and ignored for the balance of the film. Chastain’s Maggie is carrying a back-story that is clearly very intriguing, but all we get is a few pouty looks.

 Since the novel’s author is the grandson of Jack, we can assume that’s why LaBeouf gets so much attention and screen time. He is the family runt, and can’t wait to prove his worth to his brothers. Even if this is true, this story line is nowhere near as interesting as that of Forrest, Floyd Banner, Detective Rakes, or Maggie. Whenever LaBeouf came on screen, I felt like I was watching an actor. When Hardy or Clarke were featured, it felt like real hillbillies were trying to protect their moonshine business. Speaking of Hardy, he dominates the screen again … just like in Inception and The Dark Knight Rises (as Bane). So anxious to watch his career continue to develop.

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis combine on the excellent score, as well as some of the fine songs performed by The Bootleggers. The music adds even more to the film’s feel. With all of the characters here, this might have taken a step up as a mini-series. As it stands, it falls short of The Untouchables or HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. While entertaining enough, it leaves us with an empty feeling and a hokey shootout finale.

** RECOMMENDATION: for an excellent movie about a family criminal group, see Animal Kingdom (from Australia)

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy the gangster/outlaw/bootlegger genre and relish the violence and street justice OR you want to see another powerful screen performance from rising star Tom Hardy, grunts and all.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you believe the obnoxious, near-constant screen presence of Shia LaBeouf is enough to ruin whatever potential a hillbilly bootlegger movie might offer

watch the trailer: