Here Alone (**): If time is a luxury…

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Here Alone – 2016

Director Rod Blackhurst
Screenplay David Ebelhoft
Starring Lucy Walters, Gina Piersanti, Adam David Thompson, Shane West

Here Alone amounts to what feels like a Canadian version of a Zombie film. Everything is overcast, kind of dull and low budget. If time were a luxury, I suppose it might feel more nuanced than boring, but I am not getting any younger. I need more Dawn of the Dead remakes, not the end of the world is boring films.

It’s not that the acting is all that bad. Walters in particular seems up to the task of more challenging material than she gets here. The ideas are an amalgam of what you’ve seen before, only done by someone who can afford only the barest of inferences to larger action that occurs off screen. It’s a good movie for a college thesis, but not something I want to spend a Sunday afternoon watching in the place of The Walking Dead.

It would be something if there was any sort of originality to the script at all. We see a variation on the “hide your smell” routine. We learn that the dead are attracted to housing units, but not necessarily cars with screaming babies sitting alone in the woods. There are plenty of scenes with cans of food and saltine crackers. No scenes whatsoever with small game running around, or even a deer. One of those might have been believable, but it would have required someone on set knowing how to dress game.

This is not a film without its merits. This is not an insult to those trying to entertain. The acting and soundtrack, in particular is worthy of merit. In the end it becomes an effort to gain attention with not so much money and a carload of ambition. Add an original story and you might have something.

(** out of *****)

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Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (*****): More please

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Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 – 2017

Written and Directed by James Gunn
Starring  Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell

I am so happy this film didn’t stink. It could be a little bit of an overreaction to the fact that it doesn’t that I feel that Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is the best film of the year so far and right on par with the best that Marvel has released into their Cinematic Universe. It sure feels like I will be watching this film with the same zeal and exuberance I have felt watching most of the films.

First of all, the characters have developed. Sure they are antagonistic as ever to each other, but they also show the propensity for caring not many ensemble casts are talented enough to do. Most obvious here is Drax (Bautista) with his awkwardly expanding foray into the world outside of the literal. His moments are consistently fresh, for such a seemingly limited character and actor, and it is a delight to see.

Speaking of limited, Baby Groot (Diesel) is the most adorable tiny version of a character to be in a sequel since Mini-Me. Every scene he is in draws out sympathy and affection, then a punctuated laugh. My favorite moments in the movie is when Drax calls Baby Groot the “smaller, dumber version,” and when Baby Groot beats on Drax for destroying his groove.

Many of the jokes in the film (and some carrying over from the previous film) have a tremendous payoff. Rocket (Cooper) breaks new ground in his establishment of a relationship with Yondu (Rooker). It might have been nice if the Racoon had been granted one liners consistently throughout, but there were so many characters, it’s tough to choose who’d be left out.

Rooker’s Yondu gets an excellent fleshing out with way more to do this time around. Some of the moves are telegraphed, but no less enjoyable when played against the plot.

Even the burgeoning romance between Quill (Pratt) and Gamora (Saldana) is played with a self-awareness of what normally happens at this point with “TV” relationships. Turning into the skid allows a certain grace with the audience for a second film. They’d better move past it by then.

Gamora is given a more complete reprise of her relationship with her adopted sibling Nebula (Gillan). The turn they take is one more conducive to her staying within the franchise and both actresses give an emotional heft to the story that is a pleasant addition to the standard sibling stuff.

Of the new characters, Mantis (Klementieff) and Ego, the Living Planet (Russell) have the most going on. Ego claims to be Peter’s dad, and he’s charming enough to convince us of anything. The faux crisis about his worthiness as a parent is finished quickly enough to move on to more interesting things. Mantis has an interesting character that fits sublimely with the rest of the team.

If I haven’t discussed the plot, it’s because the GOTG movies don’t really need to worry about the plot as much as making sure we can appreciate the fact that the gang is back and still loveable, even if a little different from before. In developing characters, we can enjoy it more despite what it lacks.

To be fair, the plot is a wholesale improvement over what they had last time. It’s more expansive and there is a desperation that one feels for the characters if not for the situation they encounter. It also helps to know not everyone is safe. Yes, and it’s not a spoiler alert.

Pratt is more comfortable in doing less this time around. His job on the team is to play straight man to a bunch of clowns, and he accepts this job willingly. That we don’t have to negotiate his screen time or make all of his actions heroic is a huge plus. There is no other leading man in the Marvel Universe with his unforced appeal.

James Gunn took this series right where it needs to be as a placeholder while waiting for the next Avengers film. He’s taken the reigns of the stories and made the comic his own, all while staying in focus with Feige’s overall scope. He’s completely in his comfort zone, and still treating the property like it is an opportunity, rather than a burden. He is the series most effective creative force.

This film is great, even for those who will say it lacks the freshness of the original. Think to yourself, how many more times will you be seeing Bradley Cooper playing a sarcastic and violent raccoon? When will you ever see Baby Groot again?

Stop taking this marvelous thing for granted. Go watch it.

(***** out of *****)

Life (*1/2) is a short trip

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Life – 2017

Director Daniel Espinosa
Screenplay by Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick
Starring 
Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya

Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have some genuine geek credentials, having two of the biggest nerdist success stories of the last decade in their writing repertoire. First Zombieland managed to stand out in a crowded field of the undead back in 2009, then they hit pay-dirt with the Deadpool last year. This is the point in the trajectory where one dusts off some old work that must have some value and see if someone will overspend.

In the case of Life, what we get is tantamount to the opening story for a movie they were contracted to write originally, but now stands in limbo. To share more than that might give a tiny bit of the plot away. Really, though, there isn’t much to give.

Mostly what Life has going for it is one, at most two, surprises. If these are enough to sate your desires in a film, then the fact that the rest of the story is bland as hell may not bother you as much.

The gist of the story is a team of astronauts and scientists bring in a load of samples brought back from Mars. Included within the samples is the tiniest remnant of a dormant living organism. They manage to nudge it along and – lo and behold – what starts out as adorable becomes a killer in a short period of time. Soon enough we’re down to a not quite handful and the goal of the team moves from quarantine, to elimination to Def Con 1 in matter of hours.

It’s not a very good film, to say the least. Minor characters are there not for their acting talent, but to add a touch of ethnicity. It’s a tough thing to watch good actors narrowed to their face value.

Gyllenhaal and Ferguson have a few moments, though, and the ending actually is the only part of the film that doesn’t seem like it was thoroughly vetted by a test audience. That doesn’t mean it’s all that good, though.

The being, for what it’s worth, has a reason to look as luminescent as a cartoon. It still is hard not to wonder what all of the screaming is about when it’s obvious that they are acting against a green screen.

The film is not so much bad as it offers nothing more than the depressing realization that even if this had been a prequel to another more lucrative franchise, it would only serve as relief that the other project died before touching down.

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

Rings (*): Once more into the rabbit hole

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Rings – 2017

Director F. Javier Gutiérrez
Screenplay David Loucka, Jacob Aaron Estes, Akiva Goldsman
Starring  Matilda Lutz, Alex Roe, Johnny Galecki, Vincent D’Onofrio, Aimee Teegarden

For some reason, I have longed to see Johnny Galecki get what’s coming to him. I never liked him, not even back when he was Sara Gilbert’s boyfriend on Roseanne. And no, IU never have cared one way or another about that nerd show. With him on it, not a chance. It’s my trial, and I bear it bravely.

Upon finding out he was in the newest version of The Ring, I figured that it only means he will die some sort of gruesome death. I can support this notion, especially when he carries the pretense of an intellectual professor. No way, Johnny. You’re a dead man once you pop in that tape.

The images change medium with Rings. Now instead of video tape we have digital files on a computer screen. Of course, this changes for one character to a series of subliminal flashes that occur like some sort of scavenger hunt for clues. This is not very fun after the first few because it is headache inducing and it leaves no room for mystery.

Don’t know what is going on? Wait 5 minutes.  Or maybe 3.

There is no shortage of people waiting to tell you the story behind the girl, Samara. That we learned about her in the previous American sequel is of no real consequence. Whether it is another angle or a totally contradictory story, we get enough people telling us about her, it’d be a surprise if someone didn’t know about her.

The makers took a page and a story line out of the far superior (and mysterious) It Follows, and creates a group called “The Sevens” who spread the video to others, giving them some sort of gap, pushing death off until those “tails” expire.  It could work as some remarkable pyramid scheme if they just broadcast it. Oh, wait…

Unlike other series that just repeat the routine of a faceless mystery killer, the people behind this story can’t hold the bountiful mystery behind the images. Like a kid who wants to open their Christmas presents on Halloween, there is an endless procession of demystifying moments until there is nothing left to fear. And strangely, nothing to feel sorry about except for the fact that you came back for more.

I would like to say there are some interesting camera angles or something. There is one that literally happens with the opening image. The rest is so choppy its hard to give a second look.

You get a giant dose of self-reference as you hear a grizzled and blind D’Onofrio say “The event, just took it out of him.” It says something strange about his career that he is literally the only name actor to take this film. Every one else was paid to scale, no doubt. He needs more characters like Malkovich and less like Lance Henriksen. And I love poor Lance Henriksen.

This movie might not even be good enough for completists. It’s only for those who have gone so far as to watch every variation of the movie, foreign and domestic. It is lighter than air.  Kind of like moths behind visqueen.

(* out of *****)

The Great Wall (*) can’t keep out the smell

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The Great Wall – 2017

Director Zhang Yimou
Screenplay Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy
Starring  Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Lu Han

What the hell just happened? It’s not like there isn’t enough talent in front of and behind the camera. Yimou has created several crossover Chinese classics (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower) is barely a shadow of the intricate power he’s shown before. Tony Gilroy, to whom this writer would like to give credit for all good cinematic things in the last 4 years, can’t bring the awful dialogue or premise into something worth representing. Matt Damon looks to be caught like a poacher’s target. He knows he’s going to take a hit, but he just has to take it.

The story takes the premise that the real reason for building the Great wall is to keep out an army of man-sized lizards that climb walls like the zombies in World War Z. Damon and his mercenary partner, played by Pascal, stumble across the wall on their quest for gun powder, which is all the rage in the 11th Century when this film takes place. While there, they come across a prisoner / teacher (Defoe) with similar aspirations. First, though, they must resist the siege of these Taotie beasts that threaten the entire Chinese civilization.

For all of the snowflake sensitivity of whitewashing that this film was accused of, they forgot to wait to see if the movie is any good. There is no real crime that was perpetrated against the Chinese culture beyond typical Hollywood get the big name in the shot business. This is why they shoot different trailers and even different versions of films in other countries. China’s trailers undoubtedly get to see enough Chinese faces to sell their wares.

This film is not any good. It has the type of acting one would expect from an episode of an action TV show in the early ’80’s. The characters just say their lines and walk through the screen. It feels like a rehearsal more than a movie. Pascal has been excellent in Game of Thrones and Narcos. Dafoe is a two-time Oscar nominee. This movie gives the impression that none of the American actors had any idea when the director told them the camera was on.

The Asian actors fair only marginally better. There are no characters of any real depth here. There are several cliched check boxes that are checked. When contemplating the fate of these cardboard characters, it is hard to figure out why we should be rooting against the monsters. At least they show the ability to adapt.

Not that these monsters are all that great either. Almost 25 years since Jurassic Park and we still get animated characters that look like the “bad dogs” from Ghostbusters. Showing us a whole herd of them doesn’t forgive that individually none of them look lifelike. It’s not like mass movement is tricking anyone.

It has been a long time since I have seen Damon this bad in a movie. Green Zone and the last Bourne film were pretty bad, but not necessarily for his efforts. This film is like one of those decisions you can tell is bad from the first moment, but you ride it through hoping for a Mulligan. More cynically, one could think of it as a money grab from a ravenous Asian market.

This is a movie that should be forgotten, for the benefit of everyone involved.

(*)

Beauty and the Beast: Old and new it stands out of time…

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Beauty and the Beast – 2017, 1991

Directors: Bill Condon (2017) and Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise (1991)
Screenplay: Stephen Chbosky, Evan Spiliotopoulos (2017) and Linda Woolverton (1991) based on the story by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont
Starring:  Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson (2017) and Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson, Richard White, Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers, Angela Lansbury, Rex Everhart, Jesse Corti (1991)

Disney has been remaking their animated classics for so long now, I can’t remember a time when they weren’t. I think it may have started with 101 Dalmatians but in all honesty most of them are not good enough for me to go back and research. Over the last few years, the most notable have been their attempts to put women on the screen as real life princesses or (in Angelina Jolie’s case) should have beens. The one that everyone will talk about and remember has just arrived.

Everyone’s real hero of the Harry Potter series, Hermione Granger (no one wants to imagine she really married the doof who shall not be named) is now as likely and deservedly remembered as Belle. Although not being considered a singer before being cast in this musical, Emma Watson creates her own version of the role that Paige O’Hara mastered a generation ago.

The question of whether the movie update is necessary is immaterial at this point. A more pointed question would involve a contemplation on whether or not live action should include as much if not more animation than the original animated film. I am not going to discuss that either, though. I am really just here to celebrate both films, since, miracle of miracles, they both turned out to be pretty great.

To do this, I am just going to discuss the elements of each film that stand out more for me than the other. At this point, can we really review a film that everyone will see and love…except for those who insist on pointing out flaws. Well, I will try, but it will all feel like quibbling when I throw criticism to the side and just say it is a classic despite them.

First thing is first. What parts of the new film are not as good?

  1. The first time we see Belle’s village: For a second, I got a sickening feeling. Everything seems so close and claustrophobic, it felt like I was watching the recent redo of The Smurfs. There is no feeling of span in the town and it feels like Belle is walking in a really tight circle. The empty bookstore feels bigger than the whole confines of the village.
  2. Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury as Lumiere and Mrs. Potts can’t be beat: It is a personal preference, as McGregor and Thompson do well in the same roles. To McGregor’s credit, he just moved forward with his much less distinctive voice and personality. While it isn’t as memorable, it works. Orbach completely mastered the role, though, making Lumiere seem older and more virile at once. Thompson is a blander version of a character one would normally consider to be quite bland. No one ever made us sit down, make ourselves comfortable and have some tea like Lansbury.
  3. The ballroom scene. Especially true after the remastered version of the original pumped it up about 200%, there is just no beating the myriad colors and sweeping grandeur of the original. It’s one of the great animated scenes in cinematic history.
  4. I just wish they would not have cast Stanley Tucci. It’s so tiring to see him in every movie, even when they give him bad teeth to inhabit.

So what was made better in the new film? Surprisingly, quite a lot.

  1. LeFou: Gad is an inspired casting choice. His nuanced performance works in every way possible. The original was barely a placeholder for Gaston, to the point where I wondered why he was even included in such a large musical number. This time around, the character is fully fleshed out, an improvement in every way. The only time it doesn’t fit is when the residual lines from the original make it necessary to have him be somewhat illiterate and ill-informed. It is quite likely the LeFou has read most of the same books as Belle.
  2. Maurice: Good Lord I hated Belle’s dad in the original. I would have thrown him in the loony bin or old folks home right off the bat if I had to listen to his babbling. Totally moronic and typical Disney Dad, with his head in the clouds while missing every possible thing on the ground. He even thinks she should hook up with Gaston. Kline presents a slightly preoccupied, but deeply saddened man. He is completely aware of his daughter and he wants to protect her from the horrors he’s experienced, while showing her the beauty he sees in life. It’s completely understandable how they could be related in this version of the tale. She enjoys the same things he does, with her own spin. Incredible that Disney finally gets a Dad right, for once.
  3. The night-time trip to Paris: This adds a completely new dimension to Belle, her father and heretofore absent mother. This scene has a great song (How Does a Moment Last Forever) and in its inclusion, we allow a moment of true bonding between Belle and the Beast. This is the kind of scene upon which romances are built and it makes what follows all the more meaningful.
  4. Letting Belle get plastered by the snowball: It was always a little weak to have Beast hoisted by his own petard in the original.

To delve any deeper, you really have to just accept the differences between these two as just trades for each medium. Human Again (from the restored version) is traded for Evermore. The wardrobe is now an opera singer instead of a maid. My eldest noticed that Philippe was a different sort of horse. The library is remarkable either way. Gaston is as delightfully deplorable now as he was in animated form. Alan Menken is a treasure. I don’t know how he keeps drawing classics from this well.

It would be unfair to not recognize Watson’s achievement. Paige O’Hara has created, in all truth, the best Disney Princess. Instantly memorable for her pluck and her voice, all other Princesses have yet to reach the bar she set. Watson wisely avoids the pitfall of trying to match O’Hara’s voice and instead applies her own spin on the character. The songs and her performance are equally good and entirely different. I found myself hearing her voice in my head for songs that I have heard for a quarter century with O’Hara’s. She’s elevated the live action princess role that Amy Adams created so effortlessly and placed her own stamp on cinematic history, between this and Potter.

Dan Stevens is a little old, even for a 27-year-old Watson, but the role works, especially if one considers the time passing under a spell. It’s close enough and not yet creepy. His voice in Evermore is remarkable and nearly worth the price of admission on its own.

Celebrate these films. They are gifts to humanity. There have always been beauties who were drawn to beasts that they had to learn to understand. There have always been beasts who are society’s winners that smart girls know to avoid, too. This film has brought hope to many a bookworm girl and boy that they will someday meet and learn to accept one another. And grow. Everyone wants to feel like they can do that.

Both films (***** out of *****)

Silence (*****) victory in defeat

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Silence – 2016

Director Martin Scorsese
Screenplay by Jay Cocks and Scorsese based on the novel by Shūsaku Endō
Starring  Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, Ciarán Hinds, Liam Neeson, Issey Ogata, Shinya Tsukamoto

Silence is a powerful story that will evoke strong feelings for those who absorb its message. What that message is can depend on what you bring to the film. Most people like Scorsese for the bigger films he’s made. Many who love The Wolf of Wall Street have never even heard of Kundun. All this tells us is that Scorsese has to make a lot of garbage to get the freedom to do passion projects.

For me Martin Scorsese is an amazing worker. His skill is extraordinary no matter what he does. When it is matched by inspiration, like he does in Goodfellas, The Aviator, Hugo and here, the effect is stunning. That it won no extraordinary amount of notice is not much of a surprise, though.

Silence measures the meaning of its title very carefully. The story starts with two Jesuit priests, Garupe and Rodrigues (Driver and Garfield) on a quest to find Father Ferreira (Neeson). Ferreira had gone to Japan years earlier on a mission to convert Japanese people from Buddhism to Catholic Christianity. No one has heard from him in years. News returns that he has renounced the faith. Due to their special relationship with Ferreira, it is important to the young men that their hero in the faith be either found a martyr for the faith or alive and well, preaching the Gospel.

When they arrive in Japan, they are greeted by a translator  / guide named Kichijiro (Asano) who leads them to a village filled with people worshipping in secret who are overjoyed to finally see representatives of the church who can now give blessings and hear confession.Kichijiro lingers in the background, seemingly faithless.

There are many periods of daily silence for our priests as they wait for news in hiding. After the wait becomes unbearable, they decided to take a chance. To say that it backfires is an understatement. The result is not without its own form of stumbling progress. The meaning of the word silence takes a different form now with Rodrigues.

Discovering that Kichijiro has a secret past brings a new form of hope that – like everything in this film – is mixed with despair. Rodrigues is on the run from the Japanese shogunate but still seeking to find converts and therein the possibility of news of Ferreira. He also wants to hear from God.

After enjoying Garfield’s performance in Hacksaw Ridge, it is quite possible indeed he exceeds that performance here. The passion he pours into the performance is a remarkable raft in a story that is deliberately slow at times in an effort to show the hopes of communing with the Lord in the most desperate circumstances. His efforts to understand the meaning of suffering and the silence match ours. He is the best possible performer for his ability to make us feel the experience for ourselves.

His performance by no means the only great one in the film. Asano is remarkable in his ability to evoke repulsion and sympathy at once. In his face we see the true impossibility of those to be saved. His is truly a journey of Job, much more akin to the way some of us might falter along the way and shine at other times.

For his limited role in the film, this may be Neeson’s finest work. The nuance of his positions and whether they are the result of his condition or the architect of those conditions is an incredible intricacy that should stop most viewers in their tracks with passionate internal debate.

Driver  gives great, if limited performance of one who is allowed a sort of cruel mercy, when taken in the context of the other characters.

The last act of the film gives us a grueling sort of hope in the appearance of comfort. We see the final meaning of the titular silence and we hold out that somehow there will be a ray of light. Whether there is or not depends on one’s viewpoint.

And that is the pleasure and pain of watching Scorsese at his best. He lays it out there, with an abundance of passionate footage. Somehow, he is able to take a step back and let the viewer figure out how they feel about what they are seeing.

This film will be quite boring to some viewers who don’t have the requisite patience to understand why they are being subjected to the slow scenes. It’s a journey inward as much as it is outside in a foreign land.

The cruelty of the overlords is quite shocking as well. It’s not as simple as martyrdom, and that makes it impossible to endure quite intentionally. It is obvious to most viewers that oppression of another faith is by no means a ringing endorsement of the power of your own. This is about as close as we get to a statement. Where you go beyond this is up to you.

There is much to appreciate in the career of Martin Scorsese. His enthusiasm for the message medium of celluloid is unparalleled. I hope he has many more years of making movies like this. If it means I have to wade through commercial dreck every few years, it’s worth it.

(***** out of *****)

Assassin’s Creed (*1/2) Now really, what did you expect?

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Assassin’s Creed – 2016

Director Justin Kurzel
Screenplay by Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper, Bill Collage
Starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Michael K. Williams

There is an inexact scientific measure used to determine the worth of a movie that may be otherwise questionable. Three screenwriters or more is usually a good indicator they don’t have a solid story, they are just trying to hit the marks expected for an hour and a half film. A directing track record is also a decent indicator, but anything less than 4 major films and who knows. Kurzel’s last effort was the critically well received MacBeth. I have not seen nor do I plan on seeing this film. Shakespeare on-screen is worse than reading it for me: no annotations and the images don’t add up to excitement if I can’t tell what form of English they are speaking.

Less precise is the acting quotient. Upon discovering that not only was Fassbender playing the titular Assassin, but that he was to be joined by Cotillard, Irons, Gleeson and Rampling, it was a sell for a rental. There is no way all of these actors can be swallowed up by something that is pure garbage. And they weren’t. Not entirely.

Mostly though.

The property is not without cinematic promise. Taking a modern man of questionable repute and throwing him backwards through time with some scientific mumbo jumbo so he can…well, I am not sure what. Mostly find where things are hidden, I guess. This man needs to be related to Assassins. And these Assassins follow a creed, which is different from competing assassins who follow a different creed. Then they have to fight, kill one another, perform parkour and then jump off of high stuff.

To what end never really matters in the game, and here it doesn’t amount to much either.

This time we have Callum (Fassbender) who is on death row a few (lets say at least 3) decades after seeing his father apparently cause his mother’s death. Does he deserve it? Who cares? To get where he is going, he has to die anyway.

He wakes up at the Abstergo Foundation, where there are a peculiar set of people who are in his position. They are part of an experiment. This is supposedly of their own free will, but they really would prefer that you stay and help out.

The experiments are led by Dr.’s Sofia and Alan Rikkin (Cotillard and Irons). Sofia is young and idealistic. Alan seems more the cut-throaty type. They battle back and forth over the best way to move forward with their project, which now is focused on the genetic memory and abilities of Callum, in the form of his Assassin ancestor, Aguilar.

This leads to some back and forth between the past and present. None of this is interesting. The MacGuffin is an Apple device which contains the genetic code that is important for reasons not necessary to explain. Eventually this leads to the end of the film, which is a set up for the next film.

No thanks.

The actors give their B movie best here. It brings to mind that Fassbender has been in almost more crap than good stuff in his career. Cotillard is just as likely to be in average pulp like Allies as she is something originally delicious like Inception. And Jeremy Irons? Well, let’s just hope there is not a Pink Panther 3.

I never thought they’d pull Gleeson down, but they did. Charlotte Rampling was another one that feels like she’s only been in high brow stuff. Everybody has to cash a check once in a while.

Apparently, there is enough riding behind this one to push through at least one sequel. The director is actually interested to explore the cold war. If they let him come back, at least it won’t force some other director to take a dive for material that can only take you so far before it pulls you down into the pit of hitting the marks.

It’s the same kind of fate Michael Bay has been saving directors from since Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

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

Forgotten Gems: One False Move (****1/2) is the Promise of a Future

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One False Move – 1992

Director Carl Franklin
Screenplay Billy Bob Thornton, Tom Epperson
Starring Bill Paxton, Cynda Williams, Billy Bob Thornton, Michael Beach, Earl Billings, Jim Metzler

One False Move is now seen as somewhat of a jumping off point in the career of Billy Bob Thornton. It is here we saw his first foray into writing after a young career of playing under-achievers. At the time, it was viewed, rightly, as a sort of graduation to the big time for actor turned director Carl Franklin.

In the process we see some evidence of relative inexperience with perspective. The arrival of Ray and Pluto to the party at the start of the film is an example. Awkward dancing, people plopped in front of another view, back to awkward dancing. It’s in this first act, however that we see his true skill. Tasked with seeking a young child that has been left undetected and must be taken care of, we see the child found, standing, whimpering in a back room. This little boy seems to be doomed as the lens begins to focus on him. The moment we think the dam is about to burst on his young life, the imagery changes to halfway across the country, to a different kind of childhood experience. It is an unforgettable experience that never fails to bring strong emotions.

The story starts in Los Angeles, where Fantasia (Williams) is an accessory to a drug robbery and 6 murders. The killers are her boyfriend Ray (Thornton) and Pluto (Beach). Ray is a blunt object, who seems only to know about 30 words, but uses them often. Pluto is more deliberate and obviously intelligent. He is the one with the plans for the ill-gotten loot. When things start to go bad, Ray thinks immediately of the small sum of cash and Pluto reveals the shortsighted nature of his thinking. Fantasia wants to go back home, and her partners seem to be agreeable to that idea, after they achieve a few things on a cross-country trip.

Police in Los Angeles quickly determine the three as suspects, though, and they determine through evidence left behind where it is that Fantasia is headed. They head there first and discover the small town of Star City has a sheriff (Paxton) of boundless energy and seemingly questionable intelligence. The interplay between Sheriff Dale “Hurricane” Dixon and his big city counterparts plays out differently than one would expect. Sure, Dixon is a good man who has a handle on what danger is for his part of the world. He seems to have little to no clue the horrors that are headed his way, though. And the fact that he hasn’t drawn his gun in 6 years doesn’t convince the L.A. cops that they want his help when the assailants arrive.

The contrast of the relationships of both sides of the law as the tension ratchets upon their pending convergence is handled expertly. The circumstances of the trio who are fleeing are such that we have sympathy for Fantasia, even as she descends from accomplice to full-fledged killer. It is a carefully layered evolution that never lets the viewer have the easy position, even as we move towards the conclusion.

Dixon is an equally complex character. Lingering looks give a hint to depth behind relatively innocent actions early on. As the moment draws near, we understand that the title of the movie plays a heavy role in a tragedy of Thomas Hardy-like proportions. This is the Bill Paxton performance, above all others, that made me a fan. Never before or since have I seen an actor who conveyed so much with his eyes.

There is a scene in a restaurant in the second act that brings every gift Paxton has to the fore. He stumbles across the Los Angeles policemen having a conversation over breakfast. That conversation is cruelly about him and their impressions of him as a true bumpkin of the highest order. Having made the mistake of confiding in one of the two earlier, that confidence is shattered, and he still has to work with these two. Everything shows in those eyes. And it isn’t even his best scene in the film.

Truly, this movie is Paxton’s finest two hours. He is shown in every light: a flawed hero yet to be tested. He’s doubted by those he admires, takes those who value him for granted. He has greatness in him, and secrets in his past that could destroy everything. Franklin is smart enough to realize that as good as the script is, Paxton is the best interpreter of the message Thornton and Epperson are trying to convey.

The script is a great one. The border of right and wrong is drawn obviously between factions, when in truth there is a lot of gray.

A few of the film’s drawbacks:

  • The limited variety of curse words (“God Damn It!” is used numerous times).
  • There are times when you can’t tell the difference between the person holding a VHS camera’s angle and that of the cinematographer.
  • The actors, even Billy Bob, just aren’t that good.

Overall, the film is a story that transcends time.  As Levon Helm stated in The Band’s remake of Springsteen’s Atlantic City, “There’s winners and there’s losers / And I’m south of the line…” One False Move shows us how the pieces move on either side of that line.

Kong: Skull Island (****) great taste and it’s sort of fulfilling

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Kong: Skull Island 2017

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Screenplay Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly
Starring Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary, John C. Reilly

I was 5 years old when they released King Kong with Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange. I saw later as part of  a drive in double bill with Orca, The Killer Whale. I must have thought enough of it then, because I got a lunch pail of the movie and carried it to school for half of my elementary school years. Watching it now I wonder how much the film must have been a torture for my parents to watch. It’s unbearable and quite impossible to imagine how it was nominated for any awards. It is quite easy to imagine why Lange took 3 years off before hitting the big screen again.

It was this film that was in my mind when I watched Peter Jackson’s overzealous 2005 take. I loved the film on the big screen, but it’s easy to overlook that unnecessary 1.5 extra hours when you are not sure when the next fight with another monster will occur. The effects were as excellent as one could expect. The dialogue, story and acting for everyone outside of Naomi Watts and Adrien Brody were all pretty bad.

When 2014 brought a new Godzilla and Legendary pictures moved the Kong franchise from Universal to Warner Bros., it was finally revealed that there would be a Monsterverse which would eventually bring Kong and Godzilla together after a few films.

So far, so good. Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla was the best version of the film in our generation, even if it wrought so much destruction as to be numbing. Now Voght-Roberts has made an accessible Kong without dragging the big ape’s ass back to the mainland. The best thing about it is, we know it can’t happen for at least another 40 years in cinematic time.

Kong’s Skull Island is the desired destination of Goodman’s Bill Randa, Special Government agent in the Monarch division. After convincing a senator (played by Richard Jenkins) to help him piggyback on an expedition to the secluded island, he also secures the services of a military unit on it’s way back from the freshly completed Vietnam action lead by United States Army Lieutenant Colonel Packard (Jackson). Then after securing Hiddleston as James Conrad, a former British Special Forces guide and Brie Larson as Mason Weaver, an “anti” war photographer, Randa and his partner Brooks (Hawkins)  head out.

Good God, those are a lot of characters. And that isn’t even the half of it. Even so, Gilroy, Connolly and Borenstein are able to successfully weave them into a story that is cohesive, comprehensible and doesn’t even skimp on the monsters.

That’s because we don’t waste that much time getting to the action. Everyone knows that they have to float to the island. We all know it’s shaped like a skull, sort of. Everyone knows there is an atmospheric cloud preventing the outside world easy access. Let’s get in there and start throwing bombs, dammit!

What we find out after the bombs fly is that big monsters don’t like bombs, and this island has a hollow core that hides things. There is some science behind it which makes sense to Randa and Brooks, but the important thing to remember is that it doesn’t take long after they start knocking for someone to answer the door in a bad mood.

This rough reception puts Kong at odds with Packer, who just lost one war and damn sure isn’t in the mood to lose another. The cast is split up though. So while Jackson and his military brethren try to recoup one of their lost compadres (and the weaponry nearby) the rest of the team goes about finding more about the island.

The first thing they discover are some natives. They all have paint on their faces and look like they haven’t bathed in a while. Reilly’s Marlow, a pilot shot down in WWII has gone even longer without bathing. Fortunately, he still speaks English enough to give Conrad and Weaver the lowdown.

In layman terms, Kong is good. Skullcrawlers bad. In case you have a hard time remembering, the latter have inset eyes that are almost invisible and Kong’s peepers are so deep and wide, one can almost imagine he’s going sing a sad song.

From here, we know the good guys have to find their way to the proverbial “rendezvous” point and there will be at least two or more attempts on Kong’s life, because…revenge.

It’s a good, if predictable movie about giant stuff in a lost world. None of the characters embarrass themselves and for such a large cast, we really get a sense of a lot of them, even if the growth is minimal.

If anything, we don’t see enough of Kong. After an amazing start, he is mainly around to drift in and out of the scenery until the last 15 minutes.The animation is quite remarkable, though, and thank God he doesn’t feel the need to start climbing when the bullets fly.

The true highlight of the film is clunky old Reilly. His inherent goofiness is a huge positive in that it brings out some personality in everyone else, including Hiddleston, who by now must have forgotten what it is like to play Loki.

The scenery is breathtaking, even if there is no real sense of direction in the film. The people cover so much terrain, one never knows if they are aware that it might be easier to always stay in near the boat.

There are many stories strewn throughout the wasteland of Skull Island. There is a point near the end, where we see a collection of ships that have been left abandoned there through hundreds of years. What happened to all of those people?  It would be nice to get a hint of just a few of those stories.

This one is going to have to do for now. It’s a good enough start that doesn’t overstay its welcome. This alone makes it the best one yet.

(**** out of *****)