Tag Archives: craft

John Wick 3: Parabellum

[2.5 stars]

It is a sad irony that this sequel is going to make more than the others in the series, despite being the weakest entry. Parabellum is a hollow shell that has a few good moments, but generally just a lot of disconnected fights and very little to recommend it.

The fights, the unmitigated and unadorned violence of Wick, had a sick kind of glee in the first two films. They felt, well, justified or at least unavoidable. You could revel in them and not feel too guilty. In this installment they feel choreographed. None of the characters are people and none seem to feel any risk. Returning director Chad Stahelski (John Wick, John Wick 2) even heightens this aspect with a ballet theme that even comes back in the credits…it is all choreography. But it leaves the fights flat; you can almost see them counting at times. It had little of the organic mayhem of the first two films, which got to absurd levels, but in more believable ways.

The brief, shining moments of this movie are really Halle Berry’s (Kingsman: The Golden Circle). Her sequence has a story and fights you can invest in. Until she joined the story, about a half hour in or so, I was really checking out of the movie. And after she exits it, even with the addition of Mark Dacascos, it never really comes back together. Dacascos gets to let loose, but not really act (they tried, it didn’t work).

The first two films, while thin on story had a through line. This third is simply about survival and greed. People getting punished for obscure reasons and people simply killing to kill. I get that it’s partially the rules of the world Derek Kolstad created, but that doesn’t make it interesting without some emotion attached. And Wick just has no real emotion. In fact, his one emotional moment makes utterly no sense at all and is contradictory to the man we’ve gotten to know.

It doesn’t help that Keanu Reeves (47 Ronin) is completely outclassed in acting by everyone around him. It is almost painful to watch him speak Russian to Anjelica Huston (Isle of Dogs), who has a flawless accent. Or try to match the chops or gravitas of Jerome Flynn (Loving Vincent), Lance Reddick (Bosch), Laurence Fishburne (Ant-Man and the Wasp), or Ian McShane (Hellboy) as well.  The wooden Keanu worked fine in the first two films because there was a seething ocean of emotion underneath it. This time, his only discernible motivation is about making it to the next, more inventive fight. And the fights are inventive. But that isn’t enough to hang two hours on.

Short version: if you must see this, see it, but it isn’t as good as either of the first films. And worse, it doesn’t wrap it up, it simply delays the ending of Wick’s story yet another film. I’m not sure I’m going back after this one. There just isn’t anywhere interesting to go.

“Skin in the Game” hits shelves!

My story, “Skin in the Game” appears in the newly released Alternative Truths III: Endgame, the final volume in the best-selling Alternative Truths series from B Cubed Press. Edited by Bob Brown and Jess Faraday. Skin in the Game explores what might happen if our leaders were held a bit more responsible for their decisions, right or wrong, in very permanent ways.

From the publisher:
Endgame features 30 of today’s best writers and political thinkers taking a look forward at possible outcomes of our political decisions.

This collection has visions of a better world as well. In Paula Hammond’s “Fortunate Son,” we explore what kind of man Donald Trump might have become had he answered his country’s call and served alongside his fellow Americans in the Vietnam War.

Most of all Endgame will make you think, with thought-provoking essays by the likes of David Gerrold and Adam-Troy Castro as they seek to share their understanding of how this happened and what do will we do.

A significant portion of the proceeds of this book are donated to the ACLU of Washington to honor and support their unending quest for the freedom of the American people to express themselves.

The book is available from Amazon.com on Kindle Unlimited as well as in Kindle Edition or Print Book.

A quick word about Kindle Unlimited…the authors get paid as long as you “read” at least 10% of the book (more or less). So read a story or two and help authors earn as well as supporting the ACLU!

Serenity

[3 stars]

It is impossible to really talk about this film without ruining the experience. So suffice to say it isn’t what you think it is, but neither does it really manage to achieve its goals. Writer/director Steven Knight (The Girl in the Spider’s Web, Locke) definitely likes to explore odd niches and create tension. And though he is trying to be too clever in this movie, he smartly focused on character, rather than the deeper mystery, to sell the story.

You know something is off very early on in the story; a sense of David Lynch definitely in play. But the story is played straight and with a persistent reality that is tinged with a sense of distortion for the viewer. Without that distortion, that hint of something other, I would have turned off the movie in the first 10 minutes, to be honest. But there was something there, mostly in the form of Jeremy Strong (Molly’s Game), that kept me curious enough to go forward.

Matthew McConaughey (The Dark Tower), Anne Hathaway (Ocean’s 8), and Jason Clarke (First Man) make an interesting triangle, though none of them is particularly sympathetic or believable. In part, that is the story and the style. Even Diane Lane (Paris Can Wait) and Djimon Hounsou (Captain Marvel), for all their sincerity, never really rise above or stand out. How Knight got McConaughey and Hathaway on board, let alone convinced McConaughey into all the gratuitous sex and nudity, I’m not sure, but it is certainly a credit to his powers of persuasion.

Generally, this is more of a curio of a movie than a great bit of noir or suspense, or whatever it is. Much like Locke, it is a concept wrapped in a script and delivered nicely by the cast. It isn’t great, but neither is it bad. You just have to be in the mood for an odd ride, and willing to approach it with an open mind.

Arctic

[3 stars]

It’s a fair question to ask: Do I really need to see another man vs nature survival film? In this case, yes, and I say that as not a particularly large fan of the genre. But director Joe Penna (and co-writer with Ryan Morrison) delivered this well-researched first feature with the typical dangers but also some nice subtleties. In some ways it’s reminiscent of All is Lost, but on ice.

Mads Mikkelsen (At Eternity’s Gate) spends most of this movie simply looking at things and allowing emotions and thoughts to pass across his face. Whole stories, and a number of smaller mysteries, are revealed by simply watching him. Performances like this one are when you can see real talent, both in front of and behind the camera. Stringing together a story from silence and action alone simply isn’t easy.

Mikkelsen isn’t entirely alone through the film. Maria Thelma Smáradóttir keeps the choices and results nicely unsure. There isn’t much of a performance from her, but there isn’t intended to be; we get her story through Mikkelsen.

In addition to the performances and the direction, there is the incredible landscape. Watching this film, you are sure to feel just a bit colder than your room temperature, and more than a little awed by the vistas. As intimate as the story is, you are never under any illusion about the size and intensity of Mikkelsen’s nemesis. The result overall is a gripping tale of perseverance and ability, with plenty of room for individual interpretation.

Destroyer

[3 stars]

Nicole Kidman (Aquaman) delivers a devastatingly broken-but-not-down detective, evoking more Charlize Theron than the characters we’ve come to expect from her. She is ugly, both mentally and physically; an anti-hero extraordinaire. Intense and gripping, but with the smallest bit of sympathy to keep us on her side.

Kidman navigates the world, past and present, with the help of a great supporting cast. Toby Kebbell (The Female Brain), Sebastian Stan (I, Tonya, Avengers), and Bradley Whitford (The Darkest Minds) chief among them. And then there was the otherwise unrecognizable Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black). If it weren’t for the credits, I wouldn’t even have spotted her, and it wasn’t for lack of screen time.

Better known for her television work, director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight) is no stranger to female driven tales. In this case, however, she tries just a little too hard to maintain the atmosphere. The music is heavy-handed and the pacing just a tad strained at moments. But she does manage to create a dark, dark tale… a daylight noir in the harsh LA sun that drives forward relentlessly as flashbacks fill in the history. Oft-time writing collaborators Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (R.I.P.D.) gave Kusuma a well constructed script to work with, but it is Kidman’s and Kusuma’s molding and delivery of that tale that makes it work.

Make time for this one when you’re in a mood for a bit of violence and mystery. The performances make it worth it alone, but the story is, itself, a good ride.

Star Trek: Discovery vs Orville (Round 2)

[3 stars]

It is really impossible to talk about either of these shows without referencing the other. They are both reactions to the previous decades of Trek and are being run by competing ex-Trek production staff with (clearly) different visions. Their first seasons established unique directions and sensibilities from what we knew as Trek and from each other. However, both Discovery and Orville somewhat lost their way in their second series. Oddly, while at opposite ends of the spectrum (dark action vs satire), they both moved more centrist. In doing so, they both lost their edge and uniqueness but never quite gained the chops to carry off their more standard action/adventure sf intentions. And what makes them even more comparable again is that they tackled similar uber-arcs to their seasons, which I won’t discuss, but certainly stood out for me.

Let’s start with the official franchise. Discovery has drifted slowly and deliberately from its very bleak prequel universe. That darkness had really set it apart from previous series and allowed for some good characters, all of whom have now become somewhat bland. Worse, the move for the series was from a female dominated to a male dominated one; very disappointing. Sonequa Martin-Green (The Walking Dead) is still the focus of stories, but she has taken a backseat to new arrival Anson Mount’s (Inhumans) Pike and other men on board rather than being the main driver of the action and plots. Her Vulcan-ness has likewise diminished, though I can see an argument for that choice. There was a drive for the first several episodes to inject wry humor to balance the sturm und drang, but it was often tossed off and felt forced, or simply got lost amidst more important information. Eventually, they just gave up. Basically, it has become more standard Trek and less something unique. In fact, in some ways this season as a whole could simply be titled The Search for Spock.

I have to admit, I had trouble letting go of the dark roots of Discovery’s first season’s going into the next iteration. And make no mistake, season two  is a whole different animal. In some ways I love the tight banter and wry humor, even if the audio mix often made it challenging to hear clearly. I like that they didn’t just forget season one, but grew on it, even though they remade the show entirely and left a lot of what made it something new, something not standard Trek, behind. Bryan Fuller’s vision for Discovery was refreshing for me. Even if he didn’t get to see it through, you could feel him in the bones of season one.

And then there was the season finale, which was unforgivable. Loaded with, and led to by, stupid choices and bad writing. It also had a critical element only from the Short Treks, which I’d not seen. The frustration is that if you’re going to make something an integral element of the season, it should be part of the season. Otherwise, it is fine to have nods and gifts from the other material (SHEILD and others have done this), but nothing core as not everyone would have the information necessary.

I will grant that the scope of the season, in terms of the overall plot and ongoing arcs, was impressive and gripping. It managed to be somewhat episodic and still have a much larger story pulling it along. But as a rehash of Enterprise’s failed attempt at the same idea it is full of the same kinds of plot holes and issues. It also took a stab at the now standard trope of revisiting the original series that began with the Tribbles episode in DS9; but they didn’t manage it effectively or with any real emotional weight.

But worse, depending on how they resolve the finale in the next season, the reset of the universe was more than a little cheap and frustrating (both in choice and method). I don’t quite know how they follow up this season in a satisfying way…but they have succeeded in bringing what was a brave new show back to the well-trod Trek center, and making it a lot less interesting.

The Orville has swung in from the opposite direction, trying to become more Trek and less satire of that genre. It essentially gave up what made it unique and left us with middling writing and lackluster plots for most of the season. However, a lot of that middling slog was worth it to get to Menosky’s Sanctuary, which picks up the Moclan tale from season one (Ja’loja) in earnest. It is loaded with guest stars and great moments and hits the exact balance of honest and satire that made the first season so much fun. It is also one of the few MacFarlane didn’t write this Sophomore season.

The final few episodes of the Orville season redeem it…right up through the finale. I am hoping that it indicates a recognition of where they drifted from their mission and that they will return renewed and refocused. Orville may never have been great, but it was entertaining and a good escape. Sure it catered to the geek crowd, especially in its humor, but it had potential. Making the Trek-like universe something a bit more realistic instead of aspirational in its society is not only a rising trend in the written genre, but a hunger in the audience who are tired of the sanitized worlds that had been on offer for decades.

Yes, I will be back for both of these shows, assuming both are back. Only Discovery is officially renewed as of this writing. There is potential in both and both shows have a willingness to take chances and change. I just hope they learned the right lessons from this past year.

Capernaum

[3.5 stars]

There is a lot of hyperbole (and awards) thrown around about Nadine Labaki’s (Where Do We Go Now?) latest film. And they are deserved. As with her other work, she is brilliant at exposing humanity in the most impossible circumstances. She doesn’t give into dramatic cliche in order to rivet you to the screen, she employs simple truths and and hard choices along with quiet moments of desperation and joy to do it. She invites you into areas of the world few, if any, of her viewers would have experienced and makes you understand.

This film, more than her others, is relentless in its message and, for lack of a better term, existential horror. There are few moments of respite or joy. But it was the right choice for the story she wanted to tell. To have falsely buoyed the characters would have been to cheat the tale.

The entire story depends upon the slender thread of first-time actor Zain Al Rafeea. He is an unbelievably charismatic and powerful presence, despite his age and stature. In an intersecting story, Yordanos Shiferaw, also new to screen, delivers her own gripping tale.

You may be wondering, as I was, what the title meant. It isn’t a word, it is a place…and it adds an entire level of commentary to the story. But, frankly, better to discover that afterwards as it is a bit self-conscious.

This isn’t a fun film, to be honest. You’ll find yourself angry, sad, and, at times, likely yelling at the screen. The subtitles also sometimes flash so quickly (less than a second) as to be unreadable…but I didn’t find any of the gaps to be unfillable by logic and flow. Still, it was a shame to have such a simple technical blemish on the experience. Ultimately, the movie will not leave you feeling hopeless, but the trip is a little exhausting…much to Labaki’s credit, you’ll thank her for that.

Fosse/Verdon

[3 stars]

I usually wait for a series to complete before writing it up. But watching the initial episode of Fosse/Verdon I was struck by a couple of aspects immediately that brought me to post.

First, if you really want to see the genius that was Fosse, see All That Jazz. The infamous movie covers many of the same questions and issues (not to mention scenes), but presents it much better. And, as meta to the whole thing, Fosse directed which gives you a real example of what a great editor Fosse was in pulling that film together.

Second, was that Michelle Williams (Venom) makes a very credible Gwen Verdon, much more so than Sam Rockwell (Vice) does Fosse. Rockwell has none of the charisma nor physicality that was Fosse, he just comes across as sweaty and slimy. Williams, on the other hand, had Verdon’s look, sound, and movement down beautifully. The story also gives Verdon her due for her own genius and contributions to what we think of as Fosse alone in the general public history.

But the bigger question is why do we need this series when there are hours and hours of archival footage, as well as some of the principals still being alive? I imagine you could argue that this was intended as a dramatization to help us see more, but the drama isn’t that gripping and the ‘impersonators’ aren’t that good…but, then again, we are still seeing some of these people walking around, so why try to imitate them. Why not wait another 10 or 20 years when a retrospective look as a drama may be less haunted by the present?

Admittedly, it is early in the series, and perhaps I know more than the average or intended viewer about this power couple that helped set the template for modern musicals. But, generally, the audience for this story is going to be older by virtue of the subject…and Fosse and Verdon aren’t history to them, they’re a part of their lives. Creators and writers Thomas Kail and  Steven Levenson certainly have a love for the subject, but they aren’t up to the task of emulating Fosse or Verdon in pulling together this story. Frankly, it is best seen as an appetizer to digging into the opus of both those artists rather than as an end unto itself. And, perhaps, that makes it valuable to a new generation of viewers who weren’t aware of these two Broadway and film greats.

I’ll be giving it an other episode or so to see if they can pull me in, but my first impressions aren’t overly enthusiastic, even if they aren’t completely negative.

 

Hellboy (2019)

[2 stars]

I made every effort to go into this remake with an open mind. But, I admit, it wasn’t easy. I happen to love Guillermo Del Toro’s work, whether it is fantastical love stories like Shape of Water, Keiju madness like Pacific Rim, Gothic horror like Crimson Peak, or the comic book, wry insanity of Hellboy. In other words, this reboot had a long row to hoe for me…especially as we never (and will likely never) get the completion of Del Toro’s trilogy of the character. Add to this that Ron Perlman made Hellboy his so completely that David Harbour (Stranger Things) was at a double disadvantage.

To be honest, Harbour does fine as a younger version of Perlman’s Hellboy…except that isn’t the story that is being told. The root of the story isn’t horrible, however ham-handedly constructed. But for some insane reason Andrew Cosby (Eureka), rather than write a prequel or some kind of sequel, decided to rehash and rewrite the origin story Del Toro had already put on screen. That alone ate up about 20 minutes or more of the screen time. And the structure of the movie is weak as well. Cosby’s lack of skill had him telling huge chunks of the story in flashback because he couldn’t find a way to put the information into the current time frame of the movie. Flashbacks are useful tools, but they are also the fallback for a lazy writer. Director Neil Marshall (Doomsday) does what he can with the junk tale, but is as much at fault for accepting the script in the first place.

But flashbacks are only part of the problem. The movie has no heart and no real relationships. It has fight scenes and blood. Allowing or assuming that action can replace character work is a huge error. Del Toro’s movies had plenty of action (though a LOT less gore) but were very much about the people. This story gives us no connection, no purchase, and very little appreciation of the relationships.

In the end, it it’s a waste of Milla Jovovich (Shock and Awe), Ian McShane (John Wick: Chapter 2), Sasha Lane (The Miseducation of Cameron Post), and Daniel Dae Kim (Mirai). Even the smaller parts are diminished for Thomas Haden Church (John Carter) and Sophie Okonedo (Mayday, Doctor Who: Scream of the Shalka). Kim and Lane come closest to having a storyline and characters that we can invest in, but they are never fully developed. And Hellboy himself is an empty cipher.

So, in short, skip this. It doesn’t deserve your time. Go back to the original or even just  the comics. Frankly, there are just better ways to spend a couple hours, despite any earnest attempts by the cast to spin gold from moldy flax.

Pose

[4 stars]

What makes Pose brilliant isn’t it’s use of transgendered actors (been done before in Transparent, Boy Meets Girl, Orange is the New Black, etc). It isn’t the exposè style of the Balls (been shown before in Paris is Burning and Saturday Church, and elsewhere). It isn’t even the heart-felt tales of the characters (we’ve seen a lot of these kinds of tales before).

No, the genius of Pose is that it treats its characters as normal; that you cannot help but see them as they see themselves, especially the women. In particular Mj Rodriguez  and Indya Moore, from Saturday Church, and Dominique Jackson whose stories dominate the eight episodes. But there are rooms-full of these incredible women struggling for recognition, in every way you can define that.

But it isn’t just about the women. Billy Porter (American Horror Story) brings an energy as MC to the Balls and to the series. He navigates his own complicated tale and manages to draw on his wide variety of talents. Newcomer Ryan Jamaal Swain delivers a sweet and vibrant ball of hope to story while his dance teacher, Charlayne Woodard (Glass), provides some additional outside perspective.

The other contributing factor to the genius of Pose is that it also manages to bring the late-80s period piece into current political and cultural relevance with the parallel storylines of Evan Peters (American Animals), Kate Mara (Morgan), and James Van Der Beek (Downsizing). The reflections and tangling of the two worlds offers surprises and insights as well as a few dark laughs.

Ryan Murphy’s breadth of genre and his ability to make them each so personal, be it high school, horror, or history, continues to surprise and find success. Pose isn’t perfect. It is a tad arch, which isn’t surprising, and some of the actors are natural, but a little untried. But the overall impact and journey is surprisingly effective and avoids feeling exploitative or in any way disingenuous.