Death Wish (2018)

[3 stars]

A movie about violence in times of ineffective government is probably not the best timed release. Death Wish has always been a bit problematic as a story. Stories like Die Hard or Taken or other similar machismo-based tales of fathers and/or husbands fighting back, tended to be with a rescue in mind or they were forced into action due to time constraints or other issues. Death Wish is about the conscious choice to become a vigilante for the sole purpose of revenge…and not even against the perpetrators, but against all criminals that cross his path.

There is a 7-year-old part of me that applauds that sensibility, but there is also the adult that knows where that leads. In the current climate of hate being encouraged from the very top of our government, it is actually pretty terrifying. I’m not overstating it to say this is how the brown shirts got their start in the 1920s and 30s. So I have to wonder if we needed this remake at all.

Joe Carnahan’s (The Grey) script tries to balance this conversation, but ultimately ends up celebrating the choices. That happens in part due to the very nature of film, but also because of Eli Roth’s direction. While the first third or more is set up and family and relationships, the final third of the film progresses steadily off the rails both in plot situation/choices and violence. It shifts from a man getting involved to a man reveling in the carnage while the cops, essentially, give him a pass. And the final moment belies any positive message the story could have raised.

Bruce Willis (Rock the Kasbah) does a credible job as a distraught father and victim and a middling one as a surgeon. Script and direction on the hospital sequences were rather, let’s say under-researched. But it works fine enough for the intention. Vincent D’Onofrio (Emerald City) is an interesting foil for Willis as his brother. But while Elisabeth Shue (Battle of the Sexes) made a good showing as his wife, the less heeled Camila Morrone as their daughter was less engaging for me. To be fair, Morrone was there to serve a purpose rather than a character and the script didn’t really help show her off.

Outside of the family unit, Dean Norris (The Book of Henry) and Kimberly Elise (Dope) make an interesting detective duo. They manage to come off relatively competently but overwhelmed. It is the subtlest part of the script. Their characters break down towards the end, but through most of the story, we see them as a glimpse of sanity and potential rather than as ineffective or buffoons.

You may have noticed I don’t even mention the criminals. They’re there, but none came off as real. They’re all extreme portrayals intended to go without sympathy. We’re not supposed to care that they are offed in violent or tortured ways, so why flesh them out? Well, that is part of what is wrong with the pic…by not fleshing them out, they become purely “other” and it is OK to kill them, even enjoyable. The issue isn’t that these kinds of people don’t exist or even if they did or didn’t deserve their fates, the issue is that it makes it OK to view people as “other” and absolve yourself of the effect you have on them or the judgement you make of them. That is a major part of what is wrong with society and getting worse right now: we don’t recognize each other as fundamentally the same regardless of age, skin color, sexual preference, economic status, sexual identity, political affiliation, fill in the descriptor here.

So, did we need a remake of this Charles Bronson 1974 classic? The 70s were a different time, in many ways. The violence was as much about racial and economic tension as it was the existential horror of war. Today, hmmm… well, maybe it isn’t all that different, but the message should have been updated as well. Something more like The Equalizer in flavor, where the system honestly tried, but failed or where justice and humanity co-existed would have worked better for me. Stoking the anger and hate and divisiveness between people is the wrong message to enhance right now. That doesn’t mean you can’t have revenge movies or even movies about personal justice, but they should be better balanced. I guess what it comes down to is whether or not this movie depicted a world I’d like to live in and the answer for me in this case was: no. You’ll have to decide for yourself if that is the kind of story you need to see or not.

Death Wish (2018)

The Commuter

[3 stars]

Did we really need to see Liam Neeson (Silence) kick a bunch of butt again? Is there really anything new to see here? Well, honestly, no, not much. No matter how well he sings his nice-guy-with-a-secret-past, it is a tired tune.

Of course, Neeson has to have an interesting villain to push against. Vera Farmiga (The Judge) provides a nicely cool opponent, but the script didn’t do her many favors. It is an incredulous set of circumstances and actions, however nicely tied up and pushed along with action and tension.

One fun surprise in casting was the brief appearance of Letitia Wright (Black Panther). Shazad Latif (Star Trek: Discovery) also has a small role. There are other supporting roles of note, particularly, Clara Lago, Jonathan Banks (Mudbound), Patrick Wilson (Young Adult), and Sam Neill (Thor: Ragnarok) but generally there are no standouts, just plot movers.

What is worth seeing in this movie is the opening 10 minutes or so of the the film. Director Jaume Collet-Serra’s (Non-Stop) first few minutes of the credits and action set up a tremendous amount about Neeson’s relationships, allowing Collet-Serra to focus the film on the plot, mystery, and action rather than backstory. Though for a rather different purpose (and not nearly as evocative) it is reminiscent of the brilliant opening of Up.

For a pure escapist, brain dead kind of evening, The Commuter is fine fare…and Neeson gets as much as he gives in this one. It isn’t groundbreaking, but it is well crafted and paced. There are some nice moments, and at least one forced “but wouldn’t it be nice if the world was this way” moments that you can see coming a mile off. But this movie shouldn’t be high on your list. Get to it if an when you have an urge.

The Commuter

Gemini

[2.5 stars]

Noir is, by its very nature, contrived. Odd shots. Stark shadows. Heightened situations and emotions. But in solid hands it can be a work of art. Gemini is not a work of art, despite the best attempts by Zoë Kravitz (Divergent Series: Allegiant) and Lola Kirke (Mozart in the Jungle). John Cho (Star Trek Beyond) and Michelle Forbes (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay) also bring some talent in small roles, but it is mostly wasted.

The film is filled with overly long, meaningless shots. Bad motivations. Odd plotting, and really bad costumes and hair for Kirke. Seriously, she should have screamed at them for what they did to her because it ultimately had no purpose.

This is not writer/director Aaron Katz’s first or even his fourth film, which makes it all the more disappointing. What he delivered is something like a large-budget university film. I can’t even say it has strong women at its center. It isn’t that there isn’t some good stuff in there, some hints of talent, but it buried in bad pacing and plot problems.

Generally, you can miss this one unless you’ve a jonesing for one of the actors.

Gemini

A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica)

[4 stars]

Like his award-winning Gloria, this award-winning film by Sebastián Lelio focuses tightly on an individual woman’s experience of family and death. He re-teamed with Gonzalo Maza to write the script as well. Daniela Vega, who brought her very real experiences to the set and story as a consultant and who ended up playing the lead role, is powerful in her portrayal.

The story is a simple one and one almost everyone has experienced: The death of a family member and the resulting fallout and personalities that are released. Admittedly, Vega’s character and situation add some wrinkles to everything, and certainly serves to expose a seething sort of bile in a good number of Santiago’s residents, but the situation itself is common. While the story is quiet, it is held so taut in Lelio’s hands as to make emotions sing even while Vega navigates it all with a calm reticence.

Also like Gloria, A Fantastic Woman taps into emotions anyone can understand and mines a deep intensity in its characters with few words and simple gestures. It is a beautiful film and emotionally battering at times. While it doesn’t quite reach the same triumphant moment in its finale as Gloria, it makes its point nonetheless. Just be prepared to look up the opera reference unless you know your music really well or your subtitles are better than mine were (which didn’t translate the obviously important lyrics). If it weren’t for that choice at the very end, which shifts from an emotional core to something a bit more intellectual, this would have been a five star movie. That shift, however important and poignant, took some of the intensity and deflected it for me. It did not in any way ruin the film.

See this one when you get the chance. And keep Lelio on your list of directors to follow. He has an uncanny ability to strip away the surface of a character and present the core in wonderful ways.

The Bridge (Bron/Broen) – Series 4

[5 stars]

The fourth, and last, series of this Swedish/Danish phenomenon goes out in style over eight episodes and with a feeling of completeness. The previous series had left Sofia Helin’s (The Divine Order) Saga in a precarious place; this series picks up a few months later. With her series three partner, Thure Lindhardt (The Borgias), the two assail a wonderfully complex mystery while also tackling their own demons. Helin’s performance continues to evolve and impress while Lindhardt really comes into his own this series.

The Bridge has always done its homework, even if it has pushed the limits of credibility at times. This most recent round is no exception. Through to the end they are getting things right, even when you think they’re getting them wrong. Series 4 will not disappoint anyone who has come to love and appreciate a storyline that has launched several copies and riffs (The Tunnel, The Bridge (US), etc), and helped open the door wide for more mysteries from its corner of the world.

I really give credit to the writers and producers who were willing to leave it on a high note rather than stretch it out until it lost its quality. That takes guts…but it also frees them up to give us new and different shows. Kudos and luck to them!

The Bridge

Won’t You Be My Neighbor

[4.5 stars]

Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom)  has put together a lo-fi cure for hopelessness in these dark and desperate times. This is not a flashy film. It is full of old, grainy footage, talking heads, and simple conversations, much like Fred Roger’s shows. And yet it is profoundly powerful, like watching old, previously lost films from the attic of your childhood or of your family (or the family you wish you had).

If you grew up on Roger’s shows, it is easy to miss how subversive they were. This is especially true if you watched them from the beginning in the late 60’s. His willingness to discuss hard subjects with children, his inherent belief that children were people capable of understanding and, more importantly, were wells of potential goodness in the world was unlike anyone else in the media. Both he and his show embodied that in the tone, the pace, and the simplicity of its presentation. Reflecting on those shows, the events surrounding them, and his philosophy is to acknowledge something we’ve lost.

Not that it really matters, but given it has been 15 years since Roger’s passing, I did wonder about the impetus for this documentary. Part way through the movie, I think I got my answer when Yo-Yo Ma made an appearance; Yo-Yo Ma and Rogers were long-time friends. My guess is that Neville was inspired during the creation of The Music of Strangers to look at Rogers as a subject. The timing of the release may well be happenstance, but I expect it is, in part, in recognition of how far society in this country has drifted from Roger’s simple ministry of ideals and hopes.

Personally, I went into this film despondent over the last week in the news. Shattered, actually. Won’t You Be My Neighbor gave me back a sense of hope, but not in a blind way. Roger’s moment fighting for PBS in Congress subtly sums up so much of what has gone wrong in this country and shows that it could be something else…because it once was. It is a perfect film for a troubled time as a reminder of what we are capable of and how we should approach people and the world and, yes, even politics.

[If you want to see just how low I had gotten prior to this film, you can read When Hyberbole Meets Axis (password: politicalplace)]

Won

Flower

[3.5 stars]

Looking for one of the odder, darker, coming-of-age rom-coms? This will probably do you then. Well, it will do something. Flower is a delightfully enjoyable, entertaining, and weirdly bleakly hopeful story. Yeah, it really is all over the place, though some of that reaction may be due to a generation gap; hard to tell from this perspective.

The success of the story is really down (perhaps a poor choice of words) to the ebullient Zoey Deutch (Before I Fall). She continues to enchant and surprise me in her roles. She is scarily natural on film and comfortable playing whatever is necessary for the character without shame or judgement or even triumph; she just “is.” Her characters are also strong but not without levels.

Her unlikely counterpart, Joey Morgan (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse), was a great foil and, ultimately, with a bit more to him than was originally obvious. And as their parents, Kathryn Hahn (The Visit) and Tim Heidecker create a backdrop that is a bit extreme, but suited to the occasion.

On the side is Adam Scott (Krampus) in a role unlike any of his others I’ve seen. It is contained and quiet, with an interesting tension underneath.

As his second feature film, Max Winkler directed this well, keeping it light but not without the gravitas it needed. Like a good sauce, it seamlessly thickens as it cooks and holds together well. Winkler also co-wrote the tale, with McAulay and Spicer (Ingrid Goes West). I can’t even imagine the story sessions this trio had coming up with the plot, but they clearly worked well together. [Sidebar: If you were hoping for the Liz Phair song that shares the titles name you’ll be disappointed; but I’m still convinced it was part impetus for this movie.]

Flower is not your traditional film, and may not be for everyone, but it is one worth seeing for its surprise and craft in front of and behind the camera.

Flower

Missions

[3.5 stars]

Missions is a high concept, high production quality science fiction drama in a 30 minute format. It’s not going to win any genre awards for its writing (or most of its acting) but, as a suspense mystery, Missions is nicely constructed. It should be mentioned that is also in French and Russian with subtitles.

The frustrating aspects of the writing are mostly around the premise of who is on the crew and how some of the science works. There are many cliché and expedient choices over the 10 episodes…none of which would be made in real life, but which make for a more tense set of interactions. The show does run close to reality in terms of how space is currently on the edge of being exploited, however. And it plays just outside the margins of known facts to get us to a somewhat unexpected place with interesting possibilities. It is also an interesting contrast to Robinson Crusoe on Mars, which it echos in odd ways, even treading in some of its missteps in trying to build out its plot.

However, if you’re hoping for this first series to provide resolution or a sense of complete understanding, you’ll have to wait till the next season (at least). The first season sort of completes an arc, but then leaves you hanging with a pile of questions. I’d have liked a bit more buttoning up of ideas to feel incredibly enthused about the show. The characters aren’t quite compelling enough for me to have invested on that level, so it was up to the story to pull me in. I would certainly tune in to see where it goes from here, so that says something. Whether it will pay off or if the pulp-ish plot and dialogue will scuttle it on return, I don’t know. But it is a surprisingly well-produced piece and is clearly trying to hit it out of the park on ideas if not always in script.

I Kill Giants

[3 stars]

First to give this movie its props: it is almost an entirely female cast; men are, at best, incidental. And in the lead, teen actor Madison Wolfe (Zoo) dominates I Kill Giants with unexpected strength through most of the film. She assails assumptions and delivers someone very different from what you expect when the film opens.

Wolfe is assisted nicely by Zoe Saldana (The Terminal, Avengers: Infinity Warand Sydney Wade (Una). Supporting bits by Noel Clarke (Mute) and Imogen Poots (The Look of Love) help fill out the world with some nice brush strokes.

However, what starts strong and interesting loses steam as the final third of the story opens up. Saldana’s character, whose training is suspect from the outset, loses credibility quickly and Wolfe’s steadfast efforts wilt too rapidly under pressure. In other words, the ending is rushed and the world a little too under-researched to maintain full believability.

As a first feature, Anders Walter controls a rather complex challenge presented by Joe Kelly and JM Ken Niimura’s original graphic novel and their self-adapted script. He manages some very nice blending of real world and fantasy and slowly reveals the potential truths under events without denying the fantastical.

It is impossible not to compare it as a riff on A Monster Calls which navigates similar ground from similar source material. Monster suffers some of the same issues, though navigates to the end more completely and satisfyingly for me. But each of these movies has their charm, message, and unique flavor. And both are emotionally effective, even with the issues they run into trying to maintain a positive message in the face of tragic circumstances and issues. It may not have been everything I hoped for when it started, but I wasn’t sorry to have spent time in its world and getting to see Wolfe’s and Walter’s early efforts.

I Kill Giants

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