Tag Archives: Action

Altered Carbon

[4 stars]

Altered Carbon is solid science fiction. This also means it has struggled to find an audience. If you want real science fiction set in worlds that have been thought through and, sure, with plenty of violence and skin, you need to see and support it, or we’ll lose another opportunity.

This series was ably adapted for Netflix by Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island, Terminator: Genisys), based on Morgan’s award winning book. The world has some holes and gaps, but it is a believable society based on how the tech affected it. The show also has some incredibly complex plotlines going through it. In fact, probably a bit too complicated at times…the last couple of episodes have to rush to the end with a lot of rapid exposition to fill in the answers that are being revealed.

Driving the action, Joel Kinnaman (Suicide Squad) puts in one of his better performances. Alongside him is a kickass detective played by Martha Higareda (Royal Pains). A slew of great minor characters are around them, but it is their show through and through. Worth calling out, though, are Chris Conner’s delightfully weird and fun Poe and Dichen Lachman’s (Dollhouse) powerful and complex Reileen.

Adult science fiction is rare off the big screen (and not particularly prevalent on the big screen either). Typically, what is offered is something between Star Trek and Game of Thrones. In other words, something that may tackle tough issues, but usually in watered down or palatable ways without actually working through the true implications of the world that was created or the consequences of actions. Flash and action often substitute for actual logic and plot.

There are some exceptions. Humans is a current show that tries to tackle and deal with the implications of AI. Sense8, as well, took on a world altered by the possibility of gestalt entities. Farscape tackled an empire structured society with significant biotech. But, more often than not, you end up with something more like Stargate, Orphan Black, or The Walking Dead, all highly entertaining, but not good science fiction.

So, if you want the real stuff (with a bit of HBOness to it, without the HBO) jump on Altered Carbon so we can get another season. Even if we don’t, this 10 ep run is self-contained enough to not leave you hanging, but there is so much more to explore if they’re given the time to do so.

Altered Carbon

Black Panther

[4.5 stars}

This last year in film (and the world) has been one of evolution and, in some cases, revolution. With Black Panther, director and co-writer Ryan Coogler (Creed), has managed to both stick to the Marvel vision of super hero mythologies and remake them all at once. Like Wonder Woman (but with a better script), Black Panther is loaded with strong and smart female heroes as well as showing us a new view and venue for a story, never once touching down in the USA ( except for flashback and tag). It is also unabashedly fits into our current times, commenting upon world politics and the challenges that face the world. Oh, and it is also a hell of a lot of fun.

And Coogler managed to do all that while building on the tiny threads we’ve been getting about Wakanda, and amplifying smaller characters like Andy Serkis’s (War for the Planet of the Apes) Klaue and looping in Martin Freeman’s (Sherlock) Agent Ross. Of course we’d already met Chadwick Boseman (Captain America: Civil War), but we knew very little about him until now.

Now we see Boseman as a child and in his kingdom. He is surrounded by strong women without whom he would die more than once: Lupita Nyong’o (Queen of Katwe) as his top spy and love interest, Danai Gurira (The Visitor) as his General, Letitia Wright (Humans) as his scientist/sister, and Angela Bassett (Survivor, Chi-Raq) as his mother are all loaded with responsibility, brains, guts, and brawn. They all also have a healthy sense of humor and humanity about their young King; he doesn’t get a free ride anywhere. Each has some challenging storylines of their own, particularly Gurira.

There are also some standout performances in his retinue and world from Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out), Florence Kasumba (Emerald City),  Winston Duke (Person of Interest), and Sterling K. Brown (This is Us).

But every hero must have his nemesis, and Michael B. Jordan (Creed) brings it with incredible style and ability. Jordan’s storyline, like the rest of the script, is far from simple. He also serves as an oddly uncomfortable voice for politics and society today while hearkening back through various movements of the last 40 years (and more).

I saw this in IMAX, which was glorious, but it is also the reason I had to ding the rating of the film. As good and fun as the script is, Coogler doesn’t quite know how to film up-close fight scenes for the truly big screen. He was a bit too close and cutting far too quickly in many cases, making what were clearly good choreographed scenes a blur. I plan on catching the film again on a standard screen, though probably not 3D, before too long. I’m curious to see if that will help with some of the issues.

So go see this, for so many reasons: great script and story, great humor, incredible visuals and action, and the shattering of many walls. I don’t know where they’ll take this in future, but Black Panther has earned his place among the Avengers as well as film history.

Black Panther

Geostorm

[2 stars]

I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I owe Maze Runner: The Death Cure an apology…at least as compared to this film. The only film at this scale that I’ve seen this past year that was worse than this was Life. I started compiling a list of bad science and stupid plot moments from the script, but gave up after about 5 minutes. Truly awful dialogue written by people who did almost no research on the science and none on the workings of the government.

And why do I owe Maze an apology after those statements? Well, because for all the bad science and silly plotting in Maze, at least the action sequences were good and there were some moments of value. Geostorm has neither. It is woodenly acted by actors who look so wrong for their parts the make-up artists and costumers should be shot.

Jim Sturgess (Cloud Atlas) , in particular, looked like a lost Millennial who didn’t know what a professional haircut was. Fine in business these days, but not as an Asst. Secretary in the White House (our current administration’s examples aside). His acting was equally hacked. Even Gerard Butler (London Has Fallen), while never the most impressive of actors, was decidedly phoning it in through much of this movie. Abbie Cornish (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), who has some reasonable cred, couldn’t even do much with the script and situations. And what was done to Robert Sheehan (Moonwalkers), Robert Schiff (Good Doctor), and Andy Garcia (Passengers) was near criminal. Only Ed Harris (Gravity, Westworld), Talitha Eliana Bateman (Nine Lives), and Zazie Beetz had anything approaching reasonable performances, but the bar was low in this flick.

Director and co-writer Dean Devlin (Independence Day: Resurgence) either rushed this or simply didn’t realize how clunky it all was. Though, perhaps, pairing up with his oft-time co-writer Paul Guyot (The Librarians) wasn’t the best choice, each reinforcing their small screen comfort zone onto what should have been a huge screen adventure in every sense, not just the special effects. They even tried to shoe-horn in a dog and a little girl to force you to feel emotions that just aren’t there in the story; cheap.

Yes, just skip this one. Even the thrills aren’t good enough to make it worth your time. You need something this silly and globe spanning? Rewatch 2012 or The Day After Tomorrow, both equally silly, but executed with better skill.

Geostorm

Maze Runner: The Death Cure

[2.5 stars]

With most of the stoopid science behind them, this finale is basically a lot of great action sequences, with a couple good moments, and some questionable script and acting. Enough for an evening’s entertainment? Well, that would be up to you. The ride, from the get go, is pretty unrelenting. As a story, this popcorner held together way better than the first two; motivations were mostly clear and mostly made sense. Satisfying? Eh. I never was able to read past the first book of the series myself (the science and plot were just so poorly thought through), so I’m clearly not the target audience.

You may have noticed I used “mostly” a good deal in my comments. There are still some truly horrendous moments of bad science, plotting, and dialogue. However, relative to its earlier installments, it is a huge leap forward.

What is sad is that these young actors, from Dylan O’Brien (The First Time), Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Game of Thrones), Will Poulter (The Revenant), Rosa Salazar (The Scorch Trials), Ki Hong Lee (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), and Kaya Scodelario (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales),  to the adults Giancarlo Esposito (Money Monster), Patricia Clarkson (Learning to Drive), Barry Pepper (The Lone Ranger), Aidan Gillen (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword), and Walton Goggins (The Hateful Eight) are all capable. Of this rather packed list, only Salazar, Esposito and Goggins have any real moments in the final cut and they are minor characters. The rest are just going through their paces and getting through the script. They aren’t awful, but nothing pops out as emotionally effective, which is a crime at the end of a trilogy. You may have hated how Hunger Games finaled, but you can’t claim it didn’t have emotional punch.

There are also a few craft issues. First and foremost, directors have to learn that when you’re going to do an IMAX release, that any hand-held camera work you have should be cut by 30%-50% from what you think you want to do. The size of the screen amplifies movement and a shaky cam gets quickly unwatchable. Maze isn’t the first offender, or even the worst (which was Hunger Games), but somehow it still keeps happening. Then there were the costuming issues. Let’s just say that the lower class and the kids were way too clean and crisp for people living in the streets and that having female scientists in 4″ heels was, well, a bit out of touch these days (forgetting how absurd it was).

If you’re hooked or a mega-fan, you’ll probably enjoy this wind up. Frankly, as a film series, I’d have liked to see at least an attempt at a better script and more than a passing attempt to make a movie rather than a glorified and stitched together series of action sequences. If there is anything that films like Jumanji have taught the industry in the last year, you can have your cake and eat it too when it comes to silly action films. A good script pays massive dividends; pretty pictures alone only works some of the time (witness films like Avatar). While Death Cure didn’t make me wish for the big sleep, I can’t say I’d ever need to see this hobbled piece of trifle again.

Maze Runner: The Death Cure

The Foreigner

[3.5 stars]

You don’t typically go into an action film expecting to be affected emotionally. The better ones have emotional threads and, certainly, fantastic catharsis, but rarely do you have fully realized characters that act in ways you fully understand, even if they do it with skills that few have mastered.

Director Martin Campbell, who rebooted Bond with Casino Royale, (but who also brought us Green Lantern), puts himself back on the map with this film. The story slowly reveals itself in bits and pieces while Jackie Chan (Kung Fu Panda 3) incrementally escalates the pressure that accompanies his demands. Pierce Brosnan (Survivor), the focus of those demands, does a great job of playing the reformed soldier/terrorist (depending on who you ask). The dance between these two is intense and, in its weird way, great fun. They are also surrounded by an incredible collection of supporting characters, all great, but frankly incidental.

Another aspect that sets this story apart is that no one comes out of this movie unchanged or unscathed, Chan included. His tale is both energizing and heartbreaking because there is no good result, only closure. But it is closure definitely worth making time for. Chan has always had a sense of reality to his parts, but this is the first time he’s combined some serious acting chops with his action efforts. It is a part that will hopefully see Chan in even more challenging roles in the years to come; he can clearly handle them.

The Foreigner

Electric Dreams

[4 stars]

While it may not be fair, it is hard to view a science fiction anthology series these days without comparing it to Netflix’s Black Mirror. So, lack of fairness acknowledged, this steam punk take on Black Mirror, by Amazon and the BBC, is entirely fascinating and captures Philip K. Dick’s (PDK’s) sense of the surreal wonderfully. It is Twilight Zone on drugs… which is to say that each episode has some great stories and compelling characters, but exists in a world with its own set of rules rather than just trying to shock or spook you out.

While both are creating cautionary tales, there are interesting contrasts as well. Black Mirror builds a world from the path we’re on, and even interlinks the stories via technology and reference. Each episode of Electric Dreams, however, is about a different world on a path not taken by ours; not quite real even though all of its messages still apply. Even when reaching into the bizarre, Electric Dreams has solid writing and is stocked with recognizable names and faces, that keep it all intriguing.

PKD was known for challenging your mind and sensibilities (and, yes, recreational drugs). His work is prone to dystopia. However, there is humanity in every one of the tales I’ve seen so far. It is that spark, that base reality, that makes them compelling and effective. It has a little bit of everything in it, from politics to comedy, and each served up as a little gem of its own.

Product Details

Despicable Me 3

[3 stars]

Remember that threequel conversation from a couple nights ago? Well, here we are again and the result is mostly meh. As much as I enjoyed the previous installments, the brother relationship that drives this entry in the franchise just doesn’t hold the emotional punch the young girls did. The movie really only exists as a bridge to a new direction…rather than actually taking a new direction…and it has all the impact that weakness implies.

The shift in focus even pulled away from the Minions, who are the real stars of this series. They, at least, got one truly brilliant sequence in stripes. There are moments for the other characters, but not enough to carry even this 90 minute trifle. This installment is probably good to distract your youngsters, but it really missed the mark for me as hybrid adult entertainment, even with all the nostalgia-themed material.

Despicable Me 3

Dunkirk

[3.5 stars]

Dunkirk is a testament to Christopher Nolan’s (Interstellar) ability to control his vision. It is a terrible beauty of a film that makes war about as personal as it can get and still show you the big picture. But it isn’t an easy film to discuss because Nolan employs a dozen points of view, laying out multiple time lines; it has almost no script and, to top it off, no real resolution. The film is practically Cubist in its design, offering us a whole via all the points of view from land, sea, and air with no single character providing the through-line. This approach leaves no real focus other than the titular event itself; the event of Dunkirk is the only real character. Basically, it is more a beautiful piece of art than a great story.  If you are looking for more of the story to understand the war, the English people, and what led to that day, see The Darkest Hour in close proximity to this movie which give more of a homefront view.

But it deserves notice that there are not many filmmakers who could have pulled off looking at a critical moment in WWII this way without sensationalizing or romanticizing it. Nolan even makes a crashed Allied plane a symbol of triumph rather than disaster…and not wanting that be the final word, he pulls back to make it personal and to make us consider some horror as to the cost of it all for the final moment. That final frame changes the filter for the film, a feat only a very few directors have ever pulled off.

Because of these aspects, this is a movie whose biggest triumph is the craft behind it rather than what we would view as a traditional story. You can see the love and careful effort Nolan put into setting up his frames and editing sequences. Heck, the sound design alone is worth the time to experience this film. It is a subliminal drive of a beating heart that keeps you on edge and engaged, dropping back just enough at times to keep you from being exhausted or numb. Again, few films achieve that level of perfect manipulation; the original Alien is one of the few that ever has. The performances are all good, but they aren’t what makes it work. They are incidental, in many ways, to the story of Dunkirk, and war, itself.

I missed this on the big screen it deserved; it does deserve a huge screen. But with a large screen or not, it is worth experiencing at least once for its impact and craft. After you’ve seen it once, then worry about the debate of it as a movie or simply an animated diorama.

Dunkirk

Atomic Blonde

[3 stars]

From the outset, you know this is going to be a brutal spy film that doesn’t take it easy on any of its characters. The fights are harsh and the consequences mostly real…OK, kinda real. Charlize Theron (The Fate of the Furious) doesn’t just walk away from fights unscathed, she spends most of the film bruised and battered. It is reminiscent of Casino Royale, but the pain lasts a lot longer for her than it ever did for Bond and she wears those marks proudly. Theron will also make you believe that 4″ heels can be sensible footwear as a pugilist.

Opposite her, James McAvoy (Split) is entertaining, though we don’t get to see much new from him in this role. But he makes a nice counterpoint to Theron and fits well into the late 80s Berlin vibe. Having the fall of the wall as background for the story is interesting, and the soundtrack for this film is a huge nostalgia rush of tunes across the spectrum, used to varying degrees of effect.

There are also a number of important and interesting smaller roles. Primarily Eddie Marsan (Their Finest), Toby Jones (Sherlock), and John Goodman (Matinee) fill in integral aspects of the mystery and interplay. Marsan stood out best in this grouping, managing to be utterly unpresupposing and yet completely necessary.

It should be no surprise that this movie was directed by a stunt man. David Leitch has had his hands in John Wick and the upcoming Deadpool sequel. The creativity of the fights are part of what makes this movie sing; and there are a lot of them. That action augments a very spare, but intriguing, script by Kurt Johnstad (300 and its sequel). The result gives solid nods to its graphic novel roots, but manages to forge its own sensibility as well.

Given the setting for this initial film, and the resolution, it is hard to see where they might go with it as a franchise. It came a little late in a crowded field, and it is a lot more violent than a broad audience will tend to support. At the same time, it was clever and felt fresh. Perhaps that was just because it was Theron kicking butt and taking names, but in the year of Wonder Woman, it worked. So strap in for this one, when you make time for it.

Atomic Blonde

Bright

[3 stars]

Imagine Alien Nation reconceived with orcs and fairies instead of extraterrestrials. More importantly, imagine that world as if it had been the status quo for thousands of years instead of only a decade or so. It is an intriguing concept, especially with the rise of fantasy into the mainstream.

This is the world that writer Max Landis attempts to lay out for us. Frustratingly, he is an unpredictable writer. He can hit the mark with movies like American Ultra as well as miss the target widely with fare like Victor Frankenstein.  Bright is a script that lands in the middle of those two. Unlike Alien Nation, he loses the family dynamic for buddy cops Will Smith (Collateral Beauty) and Joel Edgerton (It Comes at Night), which is essential to bridging their understanding of one another. Truthfully, neither of their characters is fleshed out in any real, believable way. There are odd gaps in understanding and culture as well a demonstrated well of intelligence and capability in a world they have supposedly grown up in.

It comes down to a matter of genre. Landis didn’t quite know how to show us this new world so we could understand it. He  also really didn’t understand how to tweak history, which would have radically changed where we are today, not just a few little things, to create a fleshed out, new LA. And the ending is so telegraphed it is actually almost a disappointment when it finally arrives.

I do wonder if some of the lack of depth is due to director David Ayer’s (Suicide Squad) choices or decisions. Ayer has played on both sides of the camera in the cop milieu. He wrote Training Day and directed End of Watch, both critical darlings. Both were also quite dark and violent, which is where this movie shines in fight (after fight after fight) with different players all trying to wrest the prize from Smith and Edgerton. The fights get quite inventive and fun, but they’d have meant more if we had more invested in the world and characters.

One of the sets of anti-players is led by a very spooky Noomi Rapace (Unlocked). She doesn’t get to act much in this movie, but she gets some great tableaus and costumes. She is helped along by two credible fighters in Veronica Ngo and Alex Meraz. Another incomplete pairing, from the law enforcement (dark)side, is Ike Barinholtz (Mindy Project) and Happy Anderson (The Knick) who serve for exposition and additional tension, though not a lot of believability.

So, how much confidence does Netflix have in this movie: They’ve ordered a sequel on the day of release. There is a LOT of potential here, but they need to get someone with more genre experience, like Rockne S. O’Bannon or one of the Whedon clan to come in and fill out the world and characters to make them more compelling.  It feels more like a prologue than a complete story due to the lack of world and character depth. We want and expect more, but will apparently have to wait for it.

This is still a fun ride, and worth a couple hours on the couch with some popcorn, but given the depth of talent in the main roles, you’d like to see it used rather than just as names on a marquis.