Tag Archives: 3stars

Sherlock Gnomes

[3 stars]

This sequel to the silly, but adorable, Gnomeo and Juliet is aimed at the same audience as its predecessor (15 and under). That isn’t to say that the riffs on Sherlock, and a dozen or more other shows and movies, aren’t entertaining for adults but it is thin feasting between those moments. However, the message of partnership and equality is a bit more palatable than most animated films aimed at this age group, which tend to fall into cringworthy cliché when it comes to relationships and roles.

Like the first, this also boasts amazing voice talent, adding Johnny Depp (Murder on the Orient Express), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Doctor Strange), Michael Caine (Going in Style), Mary J. Blige (Mudbound), Matt Lucas (Doctor Who), Maggie Smith (The Lady in the Van), and Julie Walters (Brooklyn) to a hoard of others whose names are less recognizable. James McAvoy (Atomic Blonde) and Emily Blunt (A Quiet Place) reprised their un-starcrossed lovers to complete the cast.

This is John Stevenson’s (Kung Fu Panda) second feature from the director’s seat. He doesn’t break new ground, but he keeps up the pace and finds some solid moments. However, it isn’t for a broad audience like, say, The Incredibles, so approach with caution and ready distraction as you keep your younger companions company (or that necessary large glass of happy juice to launch a mindless evening of entertainment).

Sherlock Gnomes

Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation

[3 stars]

You don’t check into the Hotel Transylvania expecting depth or subtlety, even though it was directing and co-written by Genndy Tartakovsky (Samurai Jack). You check in for silly fun, like its previous installments.

There isn’t any voice talent really worth calling out other than Chris Parnell (Life of the Party), whose silly fish was nicely surprising and dry. The rest are either reprising their roles from the past movies or are standard cartoon. Even the new additions of Jim Gaffigan and Kathryn Hahn (Flower), while effective, weren’t great performances.

There some good aspects to this cinematic distraction. Primarily, it is some silly distraction and humor for the summer and kids. The message is solid and well placed for its young audience (and even a good reminder for adults these days). Oddly, the best joke of the entire film is a throw-away chupacabra reference for which the film pauses and then moves on. It doesn’t really come back or mean anything, but it is clearly a gift that Tartakovsky or the producers weren’t willing to give up, even though it added nothing other than a brilliant nod and wink to the audience for those that understood it.

There are some big issues as well. The animation is a bit uneven in design approach. There are very realistic moments followed by oddly flat, cartoonish sequences. Though you can can clearly see Tartakovsky’s sensibility in some of the characters, but it isn’t nearly as inventive overall. Also disappointing was the ending battle, which desperately needed a music expert to pull it off. The idea was a riot, but the presentation was far too clunky to get to the result. A shame, really. It could have been an amazing final sequence.

If you enjoy the series, be assured it hasn’t really diminished over time. It is what it always was and even opens up some new avenues to continue. It isn’t really aimed at adults, though there are some gifts sprinkled in the script throughout. Go to escape the heat or distract your kids, but it isn’t some high form of animation.

Skyscraper

[3 stars]

The real star of this predictable actioner is the title character. The concept building brought to life is jaw-dropping in its scope and design. And, thanks to an utterly bland script by Rawson Marshall Thurber (We’re the Millers, Central Intelligence), it is the most interesting part of the story.

The issue? Well, there are some typically bad research problems about how some things work, but let’s assume you can squint through them. But the main lack is tension. In a PG rated film, you know who’s going to die and how and who just isn’t. Dwayne Johnson (Rampage) and Neve Campbell (House of Cards) deliver what they can, but you never really worry that they or their twins will survive. And there isn’t even enough outright humor to make it a fun romp. It is purely a series of puzzles for Johnson to solve, admittedly some spectacular, in order to get to endgame.

Many compare this to a watered-down Die Hard, which is fair. Towering Inferno also came to mind for me. But Thurber didn’t manage to really secure the bones of either of these classics and update them; he simply borrowed their set-ups. If this had been more of a hard R presentation, there would have been more tension and anticipation. Good characters are allowed to die in the red-band world. But if you aren’t going to kill them, let them at least have some killer laughs.

Having poked this bear a lot, I’m not going to say it wasn’t a little bit of fun. It was distracting, even when I was saying the lines before the characters (because they were that obvious). Certainly many around me were gasping and enjoying the romp. It is a pretty distraction if not a great one. I guess it depends on how much you want to see yet another Johnson film in less than a year, and how old your movie-going partners are going to be.

Skyscraper

The Endless

[3 stars]

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s follow-up to their surprising Spring is just as unique, if not quite as endearing. Where Spring was pretty much a horror/romance, Endless is more of a subtle science fiction piece with fewer direct answers, though with plenty of clues. In addition to writing and directing this one, they also decided to star in it as a pair of brothers working through their past and present together.

While there is a nice range in the cast, Callie Hernandez (Alien: Covenant) and Lew Temple (Walking Dead) are the two that stand-out alongside our dynamic duo. There are louder and brasher performances, but these two have more levels.

As writer/directors, Benson and Moorhead sensibility of character and the world is a bit like Kevin Smith, but their execution and intent is closer to Coppola or Kubrik. They’re not quite to that level yet, but their insistence on complex geometry in their plots, their liquidity of genre, and their economy of shots implies a great path for the future. The two really care about character and story. And while they’ll occasionally slip into the sophomoric, they don’t allow it to dominate their tales, only spice it.

If you liked Spring, you’ll like Endless. If you haven’t seen Spring, give this a shot for a sense of what goes on in the heads of a couple up and coming filmmakers. I can’t say I found it quite as satisfying as Spring, and it is more than a little male-heavy, but it left me thinking and intrigued on a story level, which is always a good sign.

The Endless

Our Kind of Traitor

[3.5 stars]

Most John le Carré adaptations, like A Most Wanted Man or even The Night Manager, are slow, intense burns, usually from the perspective of the criminal or an abandoned spy. Out Kind of Traitor, however, is from the perspective of a basically normal couple, Ewan McGregor (T2: Trainspotting) and Naomi Watts (Rampage), who get caught up in a hot mess…due to a criminal and an abandoned spy. OK, some things don’t change.

Stellan Skarsgård (Cinderella) puts together a delightfully over-the-top Russian mobster that becomes the pivot for the tale. He manages to swing between affable and homicidal without blinking, but remains sympathetic throughout. Even Damian Lewis (Billions), as a disgraced and desperate MI-6 agent, manages to create an understandable, if often despicable human being.

However Hossein Amin’s (The Snowman) script and Susanna White’s (Bleak House) direction manage to keep it as a suspense drama while inching it along with more an action-film pace. The story is unrelenting in its tension, which starts with something marital and quickly expands to something more deadly.

Is it perfect? No. There are some foolish errors in the script (can we talk cell phones, procedures, and monologuing?) but it still works rather well and will keep you guessing as to whether this will end as a triumph or a tragedy. If you enjoy tight spy tales, this is one you should have in your list.

Our Kind of Traitor

Backtrack

[3.5 stars]

Backtrack will feel very familiar when it begins. In fact, you’ll likely be thinking, “I’ve seen this all before…I know what’s going on.” And, to a degree, you’d be right. However writer/director Micheal Petroni (Till Human Voices Wake Us) manages to subvert and co-opt the situation and take it somewhere more interesting.

Adrien Brody (The Grand Budapest Hotel) brings all his vulnerable and scruffy best to his distraught and mildly unhinged psychologist. He’s helped along his journey nicely by Sam Neill (Mindgamers) and Robin McLeavy (Hell On Wheels). But it is George Shevtsov’s (Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries) quiet energy as his estranged father that adds the last bit of necessary tension to pull the whole story together.

This bit of suspense/horror doesn’t break new ground, but it does navigate it all very well. And at 90 tight minutes, it will keep you focused, interested, and never let you get too far ahead of it all. It also has some very nice and creepy scares to spike your adrenaline. When you’re looking for a clever horror distraction, this is a good choice for your popcorn evening.

Backtrack

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

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