The Belko Experiment(***1/2): Your life is not your own

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The Belko Experiment – 2017

Director Greg McLean
Written by James Gunn
Starring  John Gallagher Jr., Tony Goldwyn, Adria Arjona, John C. McGinley, Melonie Diaz, Josh Brener, Michael Rooker, Sean Gunn, James Earl

This has to be something people think about once in their working lives. At least once. The concept a simple look into the human void. What if everyone that you work with and are friendly with on a daily basis all of the sudden are induced into a forced version of survival of the fittest? Who steps up, who resists and who is obliterated?

The Belko Experiment dares to ask the question but doesn’t have the patience to stick it out through all of its twists and turns. What seems a normal day at an office in Bogota Columbia starts to turn weird when a couple employees recognize that all of the nationals were barred from entering the building. There are also several new security guards in the area that are unrecognizable to the usually solitary security guard (Earl).

Before COO Norris (Goldwyn) and employee Mike Milch (Gallagher, Jr.) can piece anything together, the voice comes over the loudspeaker and the metal shudders collapse over all possible entrances. The group of 80 employees are told that they need to kill 2 people within a period of time. If they don’t, then more people die. They don’t say how, but of course we discover how soon enough.

As the voice over the loudspeaker is revealed to not be bluffing and totally in control, the rest of the workers start to splinter. The fissures happen slowly at first, then in a rush.

This could be a recipe for hilarity, or absolute terror. It could also be a study in human psychology if given the time. Ain’t nobody got time for that, though.

The film works to steadily build tension in the first two acts. Such is the dedication to the craft that they cast Rooker against type. It works, too, up to the moment that the type A’s begin to coordinate their effort. Then it all steadily goes to hell in a bucket.

The standout moment occurs to the sound of California Dreamin’ sung in a mournful Spanish. So unsettling is it, that it is possible those who see it in this way may never experience the song in the same way.

This is all enjoyable, to be sure. Undoubtedly because the premise if filled with intrigue and asks questions of human nature. If they’ve done a film like this before, they certainly didn’t attempt it to this scale. The number of characters interacting would normally require a certain percentage of bland characterizations, but the acting and writing is better than that.

The principal antagonists Goldwyn and Gallagher, Jr., along with Ajorna provide a solid counter balance for the most part. John McGuinley is a Sergeant Shultz for the bad guys like usual. Sean Gunn’s pothead Marty leads an amusing mini-rebellion against all of the water jugs in the building.

If they could draw out the suspense with a couple more twists and turns through the last act, this film has a chance to be a classic. As it stands, it is a solid film that deserves to be seen by anyone looking for a plot that hasn’t been played out.

Now to see what they do with it.

(***1/2 out of *****)

 

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Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (***1/2), but the movies never stop

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Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales – 2017

Directors Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg
Screenplay by Jeff Nathanson
Starring  Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Kevin McNally, Geoffrey Rush, Golshifteh Farahani, David Wenham, Stephen Graham, Orlando Bloom, Kiera Knightly

It’s been forever since they pumped one of these films out. Okay, well not that long ago. But since 2011 Depp’s star has fallen. Good thing I don’t care about that crap. For the most part, I have enjoyed his Pirates‘ movies. I saw none of the earlier films in the theater, but I bought them all. And watched them once. For some reason, I never felt have been able to want to watch them again over repeated viewings of Master and Commander. Okay, it’s because the Russell Crowe / Paul Bettany epic is one of my favorite films. I always was a little jealous that the first film took the wind from the sails of the clearly superior Peter Weir film. By now, when its clear that there will be no 2nd film for the Patrick O’Brien series, it’s all water under the bow.

I have learned to appreciate the films, first for their inclusion of Geoffrey Rush as the initial antagonist and eventual anti-hero. He was made to play Barbosa in every way possible. The only other character that I like better is his Walsingham from the classic Elizabeth films.  That the story is somewhat centered around Barbosa only helps, in my view.

The story is a tad convoluted, nonetheless. Will Turner is a bit too old to play the naive hunk by about a decade, so instead we have his son, played by Thwaites. The dutiful son is dedicated to bringing his father out of eternal curse of sailing the Flying Dutchman. In order to do this, he needs a MacGuffin held onto by Depp’s Jack Sparrow. That MacGuffin will lead to another MacGuffin which leads to…well, you get the point.

In his search for Sparrow, he comes across a new young babe (Scoldelario) who bases her life on the belief of science and stuff. I say stuff because some of this is based on the true tale of Poseidon’s Trident.

Meanwhile, Sparrow is being chased by Salazar, a former Pirate hunter who was obliterated by a curse at the hands of a young, digitally enhanced Sparrow. So now he’s some kind of ghost.  He is unleashed the moment that Jack Sparrow does something with one of the MacGuffins, but this is not the last time he’ll be set free. If you think that is good for him, you haven’t seen many of these movies.

The thing about this plot, it works real well with the effects and the effort feels halfway cohesive. Sparrow flits and farts through the film, using his super power of being too drunk to take any hit straight on, yet sure-footed enough to get the benefit of every bounce.

Will the plucky youths come out on top in the end? Will those who have died in a curse live to die again? Does Barbosa find a purpose after so much looting and plundering? Will that little ghost of a monkey be as adorable now as ever? Will we get to listen to Knightly speak or does she charge by the word?

One thing is for sure, Sparrow will remain unchanged, astern The Black Pearl by the end of the film. And the next one too.

There will be no preaching about this film one way or the other. I can tell you that as the series goes, this is one of the better efforts, if for no other reason the youngsters are different from in films 2 and 3. Why that matters is of personal taste. I just liked seeing the wheel turn to a new generation there as we view the constants of Sparrow and Barbosa in the center.

Bardem does a fine job of being disappointed in his efforts to ruin Jack’s day. His perverse speaking style has a fear of failure built-in along with his joy in killing whatever he deems to be bad.

All the peripheral Pirate characters you’ve grown used to but still don’t know the names of are all here, except for maybe a few that died in earlier films. I mean that died and weren’t re-signed for this film.

The best thing about the film, not one mention of a voodoo curse by someone speaking with a reggae infused accent. It’s almost makes up for the biggest disappointment of trading Keith Richards for Paul McCartney. No problem with Sir Paul, but he’s no Keef.

So I think I will finally go back and partake of the rest of this series. There is probably some fun to be had…again. If not, I am sure I will have another chance to see another sequel in a few years.

(***1/2 out of *****)

 

It Comes at Night (**1/2): And…?

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It Comes At Night – 2017

Written and Directed by Trey Edward Shults
Starring Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Riley Keogh, David Pendleton

It’s been a long time since I have been drawn into a film like this. The lens has a romance with the images portrayed to the extent that our eyes are drawn into every image, as though lives depend on it. Through the first hour, we are building up to something which lives beyond the confines of a beautiful boarded up house in the woods.

The dread starts with the opening image of It Comes At Night. Grandpa Bud (Pendleton), suffering from the throngs of an absolutely horrid disease is taken out into the woods and very kindly and crudely put out of his misery. By the time we get to see the first images of the haunted eyes of his teenage grandson, Travis (Harrison, Jr.), we are transfixed. So much misery at such a tender age cannot be distorted through the reflection of flames off of the gas mask he wears as a form of protection from what their world has become.

The family includes his father Paul (Edgerton), mother Sarah (Ejogo) and Grandpa’s dog Stanley. It’s quite obvious by the precautions taken that this family is significantly overcome by the events taking place around them. And although there is no real indication of what it is that brought the disease harming the world outside into Grandpa Bud, Paul is pretty sure he’s worked out a magic formula for keeping it out.

There is one entrance to the house, protected by two doors. This is much like an airlock might function in a spaceship. The outer door is locked carefully and only Paul has the key. If someone breaches that, there is another locked door painted red that might help keep whatever it is at bay until the family has a chance to do something about it.

What happened to the other sides of the house?  What is preventing someone from plucking off the boards for any room at ground level? These are questions that only come up later for the viewer. For Travis and his family, there is only this one door through which anything goes.

The story succeeds most when we experience it through Travis. He is a young man whose life and family look hopeful in pictures on the wall. We see him go routinely to an empty room upstairs from which he hears many things happening in the house. He lives there a lot, form the look of it. Travis also experiences the trepidation that any young man tall enough to look like an adult but clearly not ready for the move into that stage. He defers to his father, who is really just as lost to all of this as his son. He just goes first.

Then there are the nightmares. Travis’ fears come alive in them, and they push him along. What is causing these nightmares? Do they portend the future or something lurking in the present.

The introduction of other people into this equation doesn’t start out well. It’s clear that Paul was waiting for a cataclysm to arrive, even if it looks like he is unsure how to live in a world while raising a family when it does. Where his caution ends and the danger begins is the question. Meanwhile Travis, with his kind heart, competes with the strain of a teenage body and everything that would push one to feel and want to do.

Harrison, Jr. is an incredible actor caught in his prime by a director who is a devotee to Terrance Mallick in the best way possible. Every image of young Travis resonates in a way that brings feeling to the forefront. We want this boy to live in a world beyond what he is trapped in now, even though we are given plenty of hints that this world is not a good place.

I am leaving the other characters out of this review because if you have a chance at enjoying the movie, it will be best that you discover them for yourself. The story has a chance at greatness for much of its running time, and then it falls completely off of the cliff.

What is presented gives the feeling Shults is a writer and director who enjoyed much cinema in the post Easy Rider and pre-Star Wars era. Most of the acclaimed films of this period are low budget, pessimistic and dire. What is not evident is that he understands what it was that made the endings of those films work. If he does know it, he does not show it here. Somewhere in the third act, the film starts to fall apart. We get details that conflict or we are experiencing a mirage experienced by one or more of the characters. What happens to Stanley only makes sense if we can believe that Paul and Sarah’s typical hyper-vigilance took the night off.

The performances in this film are exceptional. Each plays their role exquisitely as the script will allow. Harrison, Jr. was completely transfixing to me for much of the film. I found it very easy to identify with Travis in the ways our paths through adolescence were different as much as the ways we were alike.

The camera work, especially early on and definitely in relation to Travis, is exceptional. This is not novice work. It’s someone who knows how powerful silence and images can be.

Shults is an incredible talent who needs to find a story editor. Several points in the discussion between the family and outsiders find it very difficult to believe either of the parties understand where it is that they live. Places are so vaguely described it is distracting. Then to have this carry over a span of 50 miles, presumably on foot? It’s a ridiculous plot hole that punches holes the feeling of being consumed by the rest of what his beautiful camera work is giving us.

The theater crowd I was with to a person described feelings of incredible disappointment at the film as the credits began to roll. I don’t recall ever being in a theater that had such a collective exhale of disappointment. So much did patrons match my sentiments about the ending particularly, I was so surprised by the notion that each of us experienced the story the same way that it overrode any feelings that presented itself in the last 30 minutes. The most succinct of these notions was expressed by a young man 3 rows in front of me as he got up, stretched and looked at his equally hapless girlfriend.

“I thought this was supposed to be scary.”

(**1/2 out of *****)

Wonder Woman (****1/2): It’s about what you believe

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Wonder Woman – 2017

Director Patty Jenkins
Screenplay by Allen Heinberg
Starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Connie Nielsen, Elena Anaya, Lucy Davis

It’s a miracle that it took 4 movies for the DC Extended Universe to finally find a gem upon which to place its foundation.  This is the film that should shape the rest of the series if they want to find their way out of the muck and mire of the previous entries. There has been much film making talent exhibited, but no one has told a half-way decent story until Patty Jenkins and Allen Heinberg shepherded the story of one of the archetypal heroes of the last 100 years into an approachably human tale of horror, frailty, heroism and the power that compels the best in all of us: love.

The story in brief is a flashback to the events in and around WWI, where a spy (Pine) is shot down over a mystical island sanctuary of Amazon warriors, lead by a Queen (Nielsen) and her supreme General sister (Wright). The Queen’s daughter, Diana, formed out of clay and given life by the dying light of Zeus, has been groomed as a defender of the planet by her aunt, and somewhat hidden by her mother. The presence of the spy changes everything, and sets Diana off on a mission to end the war to end all wars by taking on Aries, the God of War.

The strengths in this film are many. The casting of Gadot by team Snyder might be the best thing they’ve brought to the DCEU. She is one of the brightest lights of BvS, and this story allows us to find the motivation behind her mysterious debut in that film. We see every side of her here and Gadot hits every destination in the path on the super hero journey. She shows more range than most are allowed when they wear ridiculous outfits. Hers is a fully fleshed and feeling character that uses the emotions on her sleeve as a strength of her character. She acts as a passenger of the story when necessary, but when action is required, she literally steps onto the field and changes fate, rather than surrender to it.

This is a film I am glad I saw with my girls, because while I wanted to show them women could be heroes too. When I left, I realized that I had been duped. Instead of seeing a film in which a girl acted more powerful than men, we all saw a hero that did the things in ways and for reasons that only women would do. In the end, Gadot allows herself to learn lessons without condemning herself for what might be conceived as mistakes. Everything she does is with a soft nature that is simultaneously lethal. She is here to punish the punishers, but she’s also here to gaze with wonder at the beauty of living. This is such an intricate balance to achieve, I am astounded at the performance. It’s truly a star making role that in my estimation is worthy of a nomination for an Oscar as any comic based film ever has seen since Christopher Reeve’s Superman.

This says nothing about the exceptional physicality that Gadot expresses as the Wonder Woman of the title. It is obvious that her training as a member of the Israeli military. She is a physical specimen and is enjoyable to watch as a believable warrior. There are only a few times where they make her look goofy (long jumps especially). Her actions in going house to house saving the small town are delightful and epic as any super deserves.

Having the right kind of character to counter a super is essential. As Steve Trevor, Pine has found his second great role. He is a dedicated warrior and he plays as good a mentor for the human race as Diana of Themyscira could ever want. When he breaks through the mystical barrier (somewhat weakened by Diana’s discovery of her powers, presumably) he sets off a series of events that forever changes the future of the Amazon princess, and humanity. His dedication to mission parallel’s Diana’s own, even if they are not going after the same target. It’s the difference in target that allows his character to be more than Wonder Woman’s rib, to cross reference with the Bible. Along the way, they are somewhat equal but with different roles to play.

Pine has the right kind of assured persona to play a unique second fiddle. He is not a super power, but he’s got pluck and genuine feelings for Diana, that she learns to appreciate and reciprocate. Jenkins is a pro when it comes to the development of their relationship. We see it for a romance, not for a function of plot. It’s hard to disguise something you’ve seen 1000 times and make it feel fresh. And it takes a supreme confidence to make a passionate climax to said relationship and have it shown as a light in the window on a cold night.

Jenkins’ touch is exquisitely ornate. We get a real sense of the human tragedy in such a gruesome war with a minimal amount of blood and carnage. She shows herself  and cinematographer Matthew Jensen as masters of camera placement. There is no better example of this than when Diana rushes headlong into a town that has been bombed with poison gas. We get only the barest hint of the wasted lives but the full effect of horror just by watching the consuming grief on Gadot’s face. It’s a misery worthy of Sigourney Weaver in Aliens.

Just as effective is the sequence towards the end when we see what it means to sacrifice with no chance at escape. The effect of the decision of both leads could not have been more effectively exhibited or embraced by the camera.

The rest of the cast is as well-chosen as played. Robin Wright is never onscreen enough. I found myself as fascinated by her scar ridden beauty as I was Charlize Theron’s Aileen Wournos in Jenkins’ other masterpiece, Monster. Jenkins and Wright know as much about telling us the story that took place off-screen as the one that took place in front of us.

Where the heck has Neilsen been?  I am happy for her inclusion, as I thought we’d never stop seeing her after her breakthrough performance in Gladiator. Then we stopped seeing her. She did very little between 2006 through 2014, but she’s getting a lot of work lately. She will be in the upcoming Justice League film and hopefully subsequent Wonder Woman sequels.

Pine’s rag-tag United Nations team is interesting if for no other reason they provide things besides muscle and firepower. Giving one of them PTSD and how Diana helps the character find a use beyond it is a refreshing departure from the stereotype.

Danny Huston hits the right note as General Erich Ludendorff, a vile and despicable real life predecessor of the Nazi movement. His work with the fictional Isabel Maru (Anaya) succinctly represents the horror that emanates from that part of the world for the first half of the 20th Century. Huston is often the best thing in bad films. This time he is a good thing in a great film.

One of the big strengths of the film is the writing of Heinberg. He really understands the journey a hero has to take to be developed into an interesting character involves more than figuring out how the weapons and the outfit works. In blending the bad characters within the framework of actual events, he is able to give strength without having to go too far to find examples of how evil works its mechanations on us mere mortals. Giving us a devil hiding in plain sight as a whisperer is a stroke of genius. Too bad they didn’t let that impulse ride to a better showdown.

The film is nearly a masterpiece, were it not for some unfortunate computer animation choices towards the end. Making the final combat a collection of big, bigger and biggest strikes is a little too close to BvS territory, when a battle of wits would have more effectively matched the tone of seduction that was being applied. It’s almost someone in the producer’s office said “Yeah, that’s nice. But more explosions would be better.”

It’s not always better. In fact, it never is anymore. If we follow the feeling that Jenkins took time to formulate and sculpt in the future, this could show the redemptive force of a woman that comic book movies could really use.

(****1/2 out of *****)

A Cure For Wellness (**) – What do I have to feel?

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A Cure for Wellness – 2017

Director Gore Verbinski
Screenplay Justin Haythe
Starring Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth, Harry Groener, Celia Imrie, Tomas Norström, Angelina Häntsch

A tale as old as people trying to find a miracle cure, A Cure for Wellness finds a young and aggressive corporate shill (DeHaan)  in the unenviable task of tracking down the leader of their company (Groener). The process brings him into a trap: an institution where people go to improve their health where the opposite seems to be happening.

The film is slick and it looks as good as one would expect from Verbinski. It’s appeal is limited by its cast, location and that it not that original. What it does offer is a training wheels version of the creepy institution in the Swiss Alps with a dark and haunted past.

If you’ve never seen this type of film, this would be as good a place as any to start. It amounts to a giant telegraphed wave of images that says where the story is going with no amount of nuance. Some of the images will stick out.  The incident with the front tooth messes me up. The eels, not as much.

DeHaan does a good job looking startled, but the look on his face at the final shot actually creates more thought provocation than anything in the two plus hours before it. Goth looks haunted and starving, and who doesn’t know Isaacs is up to the worst things imagined?

Once you’ve seen a film like this, the rest kind of seem the same.

(** out of *****)

John Wick 2 (****1/2): You’re always that guy…

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John Wick Chapter 2 – 2017

Director Chad Stahelski
Screenplay Derek Kolstad
Starring Keanu Reeves, Common, Laurence Fishburne, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ruby Rose, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, Claudia Gerini

If it takes away your peace, it’s too expensive. That’s what some wise people say. Even wiser it is to take those taking away your peace with a head-shot or 70. This time they missed the dog with the grenade. But they took out pretty much the whole rest of the house.  And all those pictures of him and his not as recently deceased wife.  And he’d just buried his guns under concrete again…

The most powerful thing about John Wick the character is that he is actually quite convincing as a world-weary and just plain beaten down warrior. Sure, he’s always being brought back for “one more job” but he’s going to be shot, beaten and stabbed along the way, sometimes in the middle of a concert.  And he doesn’t miss. My word does he make sure he hits the target over and over. He is hit enough himself, but bullets that hit his vest just add to the extreme agony. They don’t take away his fire to survive, but they can very much affect his fighting style.

The job brings him to Rome this time, where he has to kill literally dozens of people just to take down one target. Then he gets into a prolonged fight or two. Reeves has been at this game a long time. Seeing him hit by cars, thrown down stars and through windows is remarkable. His dedication to realism is astounding. He is not a young man, but he doesn’t fight like an old one. Just one worn down by experience. He deserves an Oscar nomination for the most believable action star in the last decade…or two.

Meanwhile the bodies pile up. And up. And up.  It’s the highest one man death count I have seen outside of A Better Tomorrow II. The director Stahelski has a remarkable dedication to the art of action. He is growing by leaps and bounds as the trajectory between this film and the last will attest. The confidence is shows in one beautiful set up after another. Every scene is meticulously choreographed, advancing the very basic story as if it were way more complex than it really is. Take away this expertise and this is any of the Liam Neeson films of his recent heyday. Not exactly a put down, to be sure, but you know what I mean.

The last act of the film has an incredible premise that starts with 7 bullets and is as much a puzzling quest for more as it is a hunt for “vengeance.” The ferocity of the jujitsu employed is an agonized symmetry in which everyone’s body weight is carefully applied to make each fight believable.

What is this world of ancient coins and hit men and women waiting on every corner? It the same bullshit we’ve seen for years. There is no secret to this secret society. The key to the whole thing is feeling like Reeves himself believes. And you can see each scratch, cut and gut shot. That says nothing about what you see when you look in his tired, but still resolved eyes. It’s a younger version of what one sees when they look in the eyes of McShane.

(****1/2 out of *****)

Gold (***1/2) is a beautiful loser

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Gold – 2016

Director  Stephen Gaghan
Screenplay 
Patrick Massett, John Zinman
Starring 
Matthew McConaughey, Édgar Ramírez, Bryce Dallas Howard, Corey Stoll, Toby Kebbell, Craig T. Nelson, Bruce Greenwood

The feeling in watching Matthew McConaughey working and sweating his way through every scene of Gold is that we are watching a story that feels like his own. The vision of Kenny Wells to the outside world is that of one who got away with something and struck it rich with an illusion. Inside his heart is true and he works as hard as anyone, even if he feels like he will never get credit for earning his fortune.  To anyone who has followed McConaughey since his first big role in A Time to Kill will find this story very familiar.

This is what draws me to his performance in what could be considered quite average fare. There is nothing wrong with this movie and it’s script. It definitely wasn’t considered at award time. McConaughey is at his very best, though from the moment he first takes the screen all the way through the end. He inhabits the screen like someone on his desperate last breaths, somehow sure that the legacy of his father (Nelson in a passing cameo) will be proved as legitimate through his own success.

As a down and out market prospector, Wells has a dream and quite literally hocks the last bit of gold his girlfriend has left to make it happen. The success does come, but it is not easy. Eventually bigger fish come in tor make their stamp and he sneaks past them like a dying man whistling past the graveyard.

The story is loosely based on the Bre-X mining scandal. For those who know what happened, there is still plenty to enjoy. Particularly good are Ramírez and Howard, as Wells partner and longtime girlfriend, respectively. I have never noticed as good a performance out of the latter. Indeed, this is the first time I have enjoyed seeing her on screen.

The story and performance of the day is McConaughey, though. If he’s been better, he’s never been as invested in a role so completely. He goes the full DeNiro here, making himself into a repulsive has been with a heart of gold.

The story plays like something that could have been made in another time, when more time and effort was poured into character and less into any sort of flash. This feels like the kind of film one produces when they’ve won the cache to spread their wings a little.

While it’s never dull, the story is steady and the scenery feels at once wearying and fresh. Gaghan has a deft touch with drama, but nothing here feels overbearing aside from the strain Wells gut puts on a pair of pants.

If you like McConaughey, then watch this film. If you are on the bubble and think he just may have gotten lucky, watch this film. Tell me if it doesn’t make you feel like he’s finally proved himself worthwhile.

(***1/2 out of *****)

The Fate of the Furious (***): Don’t think. It’s Meat

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The Fate of the Furious – 2017

Director F. Gary Gray
Screenplay Chris Morgan
Starring Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges, Scott Eastwood, Nathalie Emmanuel, Elsa Pataky, Kurt Russell, Charlize Theron

Don’t think that I don’t know that this series is as dumb as anything I have ever seen.

Don’t think I don’t want to see someone beaten like a Cherokee drum.

Don’t think that I don’t know that there is some serious man crushing going on between The Rock’s Hobbs and Statham’s Deckard.

Don’t think that it isn’t kind of cool to see all those cars fall from above in NYC.

Don’t think that it isn’t cool seeing Dom turn heel when they run out of story-lines.

Don’t think for a minute I can’t tell you’re trying to make Scott Eastwood a star eventually. And I hope it works well enough to give him a personality, too.

Don’t think I buy for a second that anyone who dies in this series is really dead. And the one guy who died outside the series will ever be shown as dead.

Don’t think I am any less tired of Tyrese Gibson’s Roman than I am of Dom “Meathead” Torretto.

Don’t think I don’t miss Sung Kang and Gal Gadot.

Don’t think I don’t know it’s not random choice that Theron’s Cipher makes when doling out punishment. It’s about as Random as Gadot dying just before her boyfriend Kang in part 6.

Don’t think I don’t enjoy watching The Rock kicking ass.We always need more Statham.

Don’t think I don’t enjoy watching Luda as a techno Wiz. I would buy anything he’s selling.

Don’t think that the snow chase isn’t as dumb as it is cool. More submarine, please.

Don’t think I can ever get enough of Helen Mirren.

Don’t think the laws of physics on this or any planet will apply.

Don’t think I don’t want to hear Roman stop yelling.

Don’t think any of this will ever make sense.

Don’t think that the grand master antagonist isn’t working for some other grand master antagonist in another movie down the line.

Don’t believe there won’t be a full immunity or full reinstatement at the end of every film.

Don’t think I don’t want to see Hobbs beat down Torretto.

Don’t think. It will all be better that way.

Fist Fight (*) is a forced confrontation

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Fist Fight – 2017

Director  Richie Keen
Screenplay Van Robichaux,Evan Susser
Starring Charlie Day, Ice Cube, Tracy Morgan, Jillian Bell, Christina Hendricks, Kumail Nanjiani, Dean Norris

As far as I can tell, this movie exists to show everyone that Ice Cube still has an intimidating frown for people like Charlie Day. Nothing that happens at Roosevelt High School is remotely recognizable to someone who has been in an American high school. This does not matter though, because it’s only happening to finish the job of making Charlie Day’s English teacher seem balanced, relatable and normal.

The excuse that they use for an unrelenting amount of chaos and destruction is that it’s Senior Pranks day. This means porn in the hallway, horses on meth and penises drawn on the chalk board. Charlie is a nice guy, so he puts up with it. Ice Cube is, well…

“I don’t need to be liked. I need to educate.”

Educating means scowling, grimacing, grabbing cell phones and throwing them against the wall. And that is before he attacks the student’s desk with a fireman’s axe. The principal is busy firing whole departments, though, and there is no time for the teacher’s code. The resulting situation pits Cube against Day in the parking lot. After school. With fists.

So at this point, Day’s Cunningham is (finally) distracted. Everyone in the school knows that Cube’s Strickland is going to kick his butt. Then we hear the stories and see flashbacks of Cube beating people in various scenarios.

If I left out any details, it’s mainly because none of them matter. So many decent (and not so decent) actors doing nothing of consequence, it is mind numbing. Bell is there to say even more inappropriate things than she normally does. Tracy Morgan is there to make Day feel even more desperate about his circumstances while he is oblivious to kids making lewd patterns on the lawn. Hendricks is there to be a crazy violent prude. Talk about casting against type. Norris is at once cruel and helpless.

The kids are all living in a plane of existence far above the clueless teachers. They are free to do just about anything to anyone besides Cube. Everything comes up roses for them. Cunningham is desperate to keep his job because he has a wife who is expecting.

On the plus side, there is a nice advertisement for MacBook Pro in the middle of the film. We are made aware that only dumb families don’t have them.

Dumb comedies exist only to set up the next punchline. Every single aspect of the film is a weak excuse to have us see Charlie Day sweat and scream obscenities on the roof. Once in a while we see him repeat himself in class with increasing degrees of frustration. Then we get to see weak joke set ups get muted payoffs further down the line.

If you are Ice Cube, what makes you want to be in a film like this?  It’s a soft touch film with too much swearing to attract the families. He’s asked to make a one liner out of one of his signature works to no effect, and then he’s supposed to make a Charlie Day ass whoopin’ seem believable. Tough sell for a film that is marketed to the 17-22 age range.

This is a lot of words to say a movie is bad.

(* out of *****)

Alien: Covenant (**) – IQ’s just dropped sharply

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Alien Covenant – 2017

“If you really want a franchise, I can keep cranking it for another six. I’m not going to close it down again. No way.” – Ridley Scott, March 2017

Director Ridley Scott
Screenplay John Logan, Dante Harper
Starring Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Amy Seimetz, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Nathaniel Dean, Alexander England, Benjamin Rigby

I think it’s well past time to stop throwing the word “genius” around when talking about Ridley Scott’s cinematic output. At the very least we should add the phrase “hampered by corporate requirements” to the end of the word. When diminishing sales compromised the vision that he put forth in Prometheus a few years ago, his talk of a prequel trilogy started shrinking to maybe just one more film. Then, as development to the followup of that flawed but brilliant film started ramping up, it was decided that the film’s title would include the word “Alien.” The cry from the large portion of the casual fan base had been to include more than just a courtesy “Deacon” Alien shot at the end of the film.

Those complaints were vetted and recognized as valid criticism to those who believe movies are in the business primarily to make money.

That there might be a long-term goal seems not to have been considered strongly. The fact that there is what looks to be an Alien Queen mural in Prometheus was more than enough for me to know that something good was coming down the line. Ridley said he wanted to know more about the Space Jockey. So did a lot of others. Prometheus is the bone tossed in our general direction that made us wonder, like Elizabeth Shaw, what else is there?

There is less a sense of wonder and more a sense of duty in Alien: Covenant. And it is not the same sense of duty that Walter (Fassbender, playing a second, more advanced and constricted android) feels for his crew mate Daniels (Waterston). It’s kind of obvious that Walter feels a kindness for humans that the creators of the Alien prequels don’t feel for their audience. The new direction has been abandoned, and in its place the same old checkpoints that Scott has hit in his previous films, with no sense of story flow past the first act.

That first act is, actually, pretty good. It’s 2104, ten years after Prometheus is reported missing. An accident on the colony ship Covenant creates the makings for a situation for their crew to investigate the source of a signal on an unknown planet, instead of their original destination. Preliminary research shows that the planet should actually be more habitable than their original destination, so despite the objections of 2nd in command Daniels, captain Oram (Crudup) decides to send most of his crew down to search for the source and scope the planet out. That they just decide to land is risky, but when they all depart the ship without any protective gear, it’s obvious that most of these folks are not mean to last the trip.

What they discover while there is a contaminant that starts to affect each of the crew one way or another. In addition, David (Fassbender) arrives in the midst of chaos breaking down. He knows everything there is to know about the planet that they are on. Let’s just say it’s not good news.

There is actually some good character build up as things are unfolding in the early part of the story. Primarily in the form of McBride, Waterston, Ejogo, Bichir, Seimetz and Hernandez, we get a sense of camaraderie and togetherness that was missing from the disparate crew of Prometheus, who somehow hadn’t met one another until they woke up from hyper-sleep. The situations they face are at least interesting until they set down on the planet, and even when the plot goes south, the characters still shine as genuine. This could be more because the loss of a spouse resonates more than would that of someone you just met prior to taking off, but it’s plain the actors have a better idea of who they are here.

It’s once they land on the planet that everything in the story lets the characters down. Crudup’s Captain Oram is most crippled by the mechanics of the point to point plotting. He goes from trying to prevent his crew from mourning the loss of a loved one to making decisions on a whim that endanger the lives of everyone. Why?  Because the plot requires it. Later he has some incredible red flags that he at first acts on, but then succumbs to stupidly.  Again we ask why? Well if you’ve seen the trailer, you know someone has to lean over an egg at some point.

This is the problem with much of the last 2/3 of the film. People are not anywhere for any meaningful reason, they just split up when the plot requires thinning of the herd. Then we get a series of clever lines followed by dumb reactions. It’s all just spacing for the next attack.

Much has been made of Fassbender playing the dual roles of David and Walter. Of this I say he is only as good as the script allows. Where we win is when they counter one another in the meaning of existence. There is a good back and forth, some of the best writing of the film. In the midst of which, the subjects of the previous entry in the story are glossed over as a minor loose thread. Just like that, several of the questions from the previous film vanish. Is this forever?  Likely, though I  hope not.

This brings us to Waterston. It’s hard to have much enthusiasm for a character filling the heroine slot when the last one is missing in action. Waterston is good in the role but her character feels less like a person than a spot holder. She’s supposed to be the one who stays calm in the face of pending disaster, and she’s the one who needs to disagree with the captain. Her relationship with Walter is a nice diversion, but she’s got to do all of the muscle bearing while everyone else succumbs to the order of appearance on the credits.

This is less of a problem with Prometheus, because Shaw (Rapace) has an actual goal beyond survival of the moment. She is curious and wonders about things that many of those watching could be interested in, were it posed in a smart enough way. Instead of refining that difficult path into a synthesized theme, we go back to having people as glorified cows lined up for slaughter by the ever refined Alien compositions.

What is going on with the Aliens? We have a few different styles than we’ve seen before, but nothing resonates until we get back to one that looks close, but not exactly like the one seen in the original. We are given some strong hints that there is some Buffalo Bill style experimenting going on, but given the fact that there are no non-botanical organisms present at all makes one wonder how perfect this contagion really is in its altered state.

The beastly antagonists are rarely scary in any fashion. There is absolutely no tension based on the fact that it’s all been done before. It doesn’t matter where something is going to break out, if you know it’s going to happen before the victims set foot in the area of playthings. Those being hunted provide no clever or meaningful resistance, therefore being even closer to cows than humans.

While much has been made of the realism of Scott’s creature effects, every shot in the film rings closer to Transformers than it does the original creepy source. The details onscreen are crisp and he definitely knows how to hold attention in the action scenes. It’s just hard to imagine he’s putting as much thought into the likelihood of some of the scenes (like watching an Alien jump directly and willingly into a trap) as he is what kind of filter to put on the lens.

Is this film a complete loss?  No. The series has a future and one can hope that the film makes enough money to provide a buffer that might allow Scott more freedom to explore the seemingly obliterated Engineers. Right now it just seems like Scott spent the film checking boxes of requirements from the people in the business attire. This is the one designed to please the “fans” to be sure. Let’s hope that this becomes less an investigation of Weyland’s creation and more of an investigation of the question that Scott has twice now said he wants to investigate:

Where do we come from?

We already know that David has found his purpose and we definitely know what happens when people in these films die. Let’s try a little harder to engage everyone.

(** out of *****)