Tag Archives: popcorn

Don’t Let Go

[3.5 stars]

You have to love a film that can suck you in early and then drag you along, guessing, right till the end. Writer/director Jacob Estes (The Details) delivers a driving suspense thriller that keeps going right up to the final credits. And that’s what you want from a ride like this. No time to really think. No slow moments to lose the momentum.

David Oyelowo (The Midnight Sky) is the primary driver of the story. His ability to give us a tough cop with a heart and screwed up family is really wonderful. He’s propelled through the story by his niece, Storm Reid (A Wrinkle in Time), who’s entertaining, but not entirely on the same level. Some of that is the writing and some the directing, but a good portion of it is on her. It’s a subtle role and she doesn’t always have the levels under control. Still, their relationship is compelling enough to keep it all going.

When you need a solid distraction of a good mystery with a bit of woo-woo mechanics, this one is definitely worth the time.

Don't Let Go Poster

Earwig and the Witch

[2.75 stars]

There’s 2/3’s of an entertaining movie here. Sadly, that last act is missing. Honestly, what you get is really just the first installment of a series…but there doesn’t seem to be another one in the works. And, besides, it’s a cheat to end mid-tale rather than to have a coda that can expand the story for later. In other words, every movie needs to stand on its own, even if it feeds into a bigger arc. Director Goro Miyazaki (From Up on Poppy Hill) knows this, so I don’t quite understand the choices, unless they were driven by cost or other factors.

Added to the challenge is that Studio Ghibli is clearly trying out new tech with this film. The result is very cold, losing all the warmth and subtle artistry the group is famous for. The look of the characters is very plastic-y and the lips don’t sync well at all. Some of that may have been the voice talent, but it was more noticeable than I’ve seen before in a Ghibli release.

And the voice direction was only middling. So much so that only a couple of the smaller characters really stood out. Neither of them were the women at the heart of the tale. Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) and Dan Stevens (Colossal, Legion) were either given more leash or put in more effort, but it was their deliveries that were the most memorable.

Goro’s father, Hayao Miyazaki (The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness), apparently helped with the planning of this story. You can see his influence in some of the interesting flows and the general joy and humor of the film, but I can’t believe even he was happy with the ending.

Ultimately, assuming the story is continued, this will be an intriguing first installment. But if it ends up just standing on its own, it is somewhat pointless. Frankly, I’d hold off till there is the promise of more, or you’re either prepared to be left hanging, or know the original books enough to know what’s going on.

Earwig and the Witch Poster

Zombeavers

[2 stars]

I’m sorry, I just had to. I had to! And now I have so you don’t have to.

Don’t get me wrong, in the proper altered state of mind, it would probably entertain the right viewer (likely Millennial or younger). But it’s no Shaun of the Dead, though it is in the same vein. It’s self-aware and unapologetic. But there are no really sympathetic characters and the shy 75 minutes wraps up in a rather unsatisfying, if fair, way (given the script). I will grant the cast and crew that they really just went for it without apology.

I had been hoping for something a bit more Piranah (or even the original version). You know, the so-bad-it’s-good sort of fare. But this is more broad horror comedy. If you need that on this subject, check out Anna and the Apocalypse or Cockneys vs Zombies or, if you want something more polished, Zombieland.

But seriously, just don’t.

Zombeavers Poster

One Night in Bangkok

[3 stars]

Despite the title and description, One Night in Bangkok is not an action flick. Wych Kaosayananda’s latest is, instead, an uneven revenge film with often questionable morals. The rough nature of the final product is in the pacing, the acting, and, to a degree, in the plotting. But this story still manages to keep interest and tug emotions thanks to the more verbally intimate scenes between Mark Dacascos (John Wick 3: Parabellum) and his driver. The louder, more confrontational moments between Dacascos and others are often just painful.

I’m used to seeing Dacascos centered and focused, even intimidating when needed. But this story gives him the opportunity to bring his Crow sensitivity to a new, mature level. At times, almost spiritual. We see his pain, his memories, his conflicts. And as the story slowly unwinds, we better understand them all. Though, to be honest, the script never really affords us a full picture of who the man is.

Ultimately, this isn’t a great film, but it has its moments and its value. There aren’t any really great fights or chases, but there is tension and resolution. If the acting had only been better across the rest of the cast, it could have been something more. But it manages to survive and not entirely embarrass itself. Sometimes that’s the best you can ask when making a film in a non-native language for the majority of the cast, some of whom have minimal experience.

One Night in Bangkok Poster

Outside the Wire

[3 stars]

In many ways this is a fairly standard war flick, in the modern style. But it does have a bit of a twist and it ultimately asks some good questions and makes some real points (even if it does so a bit ham-handedly).

With a script by, primarily, a video game writer and directed by Mikael Håfström (Escape Plan), the somewhat quest-styled, surfacey approach to the story isn’t too surprising. It’s still entertaining, and the plot isn’t entirely without flare, but it isn’t brilliant.

The real source of any levels and nuance is brought by Anthony Mackie (Altered Carbon) who adds a sense of gravitas, though he isn’t the main character. The lead is taken on by Damson Idris (Snowfall). Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the presence to dominate the screen and his subtle approach to the role doesn’t manage to provide background, only in-the-moment responses. It’s clear there is a backstory to Idris’s character, but it’s never really revealed either by reaction or script. That leaves us with just the mission we can see, and any questions that may raise.

A few small roles keep it rolling, primarily  Emily Beecham (Hail, Caesar!). But others, like Pilou Asbæk (Overlord) are thrown away.

Ultimately, after a nicely tense climax, it all sort of devolves into the obvious with little learned and little impact for those that remain. The questions certainly still exist, but the story of the movie seems to be just a full circle with, perhaps, a bit more empathy on the part of Idris, though exactly what he’s learned is a little muddy.

For a fun bit of escapism, this isn’t a bad choice. The production is rich and the tension kept nicely high. Just don’t expect it to have the meat it hints it may contain.

Outside the Wire Poster

Locked Down

[3 stars]

A unique anti-heist movie with a solid cast and steady pace. Anne Hathaway (The Witches) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (The Old Guard) give us a couple in their final throes, which the pandemic has only, paradoxically, both accelerated and restrained via the lockdown.

Steven Knight’s (A Christmas Carol) script submerges us in the couple’s frustration and despondency, while slowly exposing their secrets and emotional turmoil. He also slowly builds out a pathway that would, in most stories of this type, have been the focus. Unlike a typical film in the genre, like Ocean’s 8, Locked Down builds a deep foundation for the choices and manages a pathway to allow it to happen relatively without consequence. It is still fraught with tension and risk, but we’re presented with the options as the characters are, and we can fully follow their choices.

Director Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow) embraces the claustrophobia and lethargy of the pandemic, and also the desperate need for contact. We see people, but most only through video screens or through windows. But he still populated that background and interactions with a pile of great talent. People like Ben Kingsley (Elegy), Ben Stiller (Tower Heist), and Mark Gatiss (Dracula) stand out particularly. Sadly, the story is short on women. Though Mindy Kaling (Late Night) appears, she’s barely used, and few others have more impact.

This is definitely a slow burn story, and it must be to retain any credibility and still work. It isn’t about two bad people planning something nefarious, it’s about two desperate people taking advantage of a situation. It’s all still very morally ambiguous, but Knight’s script does it’s best to make it palatable, and Liman guides his actors in a way that makes it feel possible.

But let’s be clear. This is a story of it’s time and only works because we’re still going through it. While the journey is honest, our empathy will not last much past the end of the current pandemic. And for those that come after, it probably won’t stand the test of time. However, for now and for a fun escape (and a bit of a leap of faith) it’s definitely worth your time.

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Mulan (2020)

[3.5 stars]

Niki Caro (McFarland, USA) wasn’t a likely choice to direct this Chinese fantasy, but she pulls it off with heart, and not just a few wire tricks. More interestingly, she manages to bridge Eastern and Western sensibilities in the storytelling, arriving at a comfortable blend between Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and any Disney princess film you’d like to consider, though perhaps Pixar’s Brave is a better point on that end of the spectrum.

I admit I went into this one full of trepidation. There were so many controversies around the release of the film. Starting with ill-considered tweets from its star Yifei Liu and then its direct release on  stream. But, I have to admit it won me over. Donnie Yen (xXx: Return of Xander Cage), Li Gong (2046), Jet Li (The Expendables 3 ), Tzi Ma (The Farewell), Rosalind Chao, and Pei-Pei Cheng (Lilting) certainly added to the enticement to see the movie.

Mulan isn’t brilliant, but it’s fun and, most importantly, avoids the really bad choices at the end that it starts to swing toward. I was even surprised by moments. Admittedly, despite the well of talent, the performances are relatively shallow. The story is also far too easy and fast. But it’s full of action and visual distraction. It may be a bit confused in some aspects of its story, but it certainly took some chances by incorporating the Western and Eastern Phoenix tales into the story without much explanation or apology to the mashed-up mythos.

Basically, this isn’t a waste of time, but it isn’t one you have to rush to. And the more Chinese fantasies you’ve seen, the thinner this will seem. However, it delivers on its promise, if not with the depth or emotional impact you might have wished.

Mulan Poster

Star Trek: Discovery (series 3)

[3 stars]

In its third season, and practically third incarnation, Discovery has finally bridged the divide that has separated two sets of fandom for decades by dropping Trek characters into a Star Wars-like universe. The highly anticipated third launch of this show starts off with a bang and quickly resets the style, sensibility, and characters … yet again. Has any show changed this much series to series other than Fringe (and even that had some consistencies) or The OA (had it been allowed to continue)?

I actually rather enjoyed the first season. There was some daring darkness and an attempt to remake the franchise into something new. The second season was a bit more confused. Interesting, but confused. Character motivations changed, the politics and focus shifted. The outcome and climax were a bit rushed and not entirely satisfactory. However, that finale opened the door for the series to completely leapfrog all known Trek canon and forge their own path.

And that brings us to the current series, 900 years in the future and several hundred years beyond any known story. There are immediate references to past events setting up mysteries and possible eddies from the time jump to keep us anchored. But the most notable aspect is how changed Sonequa Martin-Green’s Michael is. Her entire demeanor has shifted. By the end of the  second episode, many others from the crew will have begun down new paths as well. Michelle Yeoh (Last Christmas), in particular, is being set up for some incredible fun.

But, of course, these shifts created a problem for the series…it had to start all over again. With the characters, with the plots, and with the Federation. So, after a solid 2-part opening it devolves for a good part of the season into providing stories for these new beginnings which are wrapped up in Star-Trek-easy confrontations and solutions to get them on the path.

While some characters are jettisoned, others, like Oded Fehr (Resident Evil), Ian Alexander (The OA), and newcomer Blu del Barrio bring some new life to the show. Their insertion into the story is forced at times, but all provide new directions. Admittedly, this is also often at the cost of not getting to see some of the characters we’ve already invested in as much as we’d like to. And with all these encapsulated stories everything comes across as a bit too easy and fast to resolve because they have limited time to get it all done in one episode and/or one season. And the big mystery is scarily bad, hand-wavy science, and the entire season is overly earnest, in that very Trek way, particularly near the end of the season.

But, ultimately, this season is a brave and interesting choice for the show. It definitely feels like something new and unique in the Trek ouvre, and it’s relatively self-contained as a new jumping off point. The real question now is, can they build on it rather than panicking and remaking the show yet again in the fourth season?

Star Trek: Discovery Poster

The Witches

[3 stars]

Welcome to the weird and wonderfully dark work of Roald Dahl’s children’s stories. The Witches is cut from the same cloth as Charlie and the Chocolate factory, though without quite the same pizzazz. At least not in this incarnation.

Director and co-writer Robert Zemeckis (Welcome to Marwen) certainly picked up the weird in this tale, but it has an uneasy truce with the wonderful. The production design nicely captures the dark and nasty side of Anne Hathaway’s (Becoming Jane) grand high witch and her twisted coven. Their costumes and prosthetics are delightfully creepy, but also probably a bit too scary for a really young audience.

And Octavia Spencer (Onward) provides an adult ally to the young Jahzir Bruno. Her warmth and parentship are solid, but it never feels entirely right. Meanwhile, Stanley Tucci (A Private War) and his cadre of hotel workers provide the broad humor and pratfalls attempting to keep the chaos and danger on the lighter side.

This isn’t a brilliant film, but it’s well executed. Part of its struggle is that it is a story out of time. As told, it only really works set in the past, but it is also afraid to truly tackle that past as part of the story. Had Zemeckis and his co-writers, which included Guillermo del Toro (Tales of Arcadia), were happy to take the backdrop, but not confident enough to fully acknowledge the implications.

For a little light entertainment that is a few shades darker than treacle often offered young viewers, this may do. It is diverting and has its moments as the three adult leads certainly know how to deliver physical humor. It just doesn’t fully come together as a classic or even strongly rewatchable fare.

Roald Dahl's The Witches Poster

Doctor Who: Revolution of the Daleks

[3.5 stars]

When we left off series 12, there was a major cliff hanger and change was very much in the air. And, I will admit, that my opinion of this current season has improved a little after rewatching it in prep for this holiday special, which also serves as the technical end to the 12th series.

I’m going to have to be brief here as almost any discussion is going to be full of spoilers…and I’ve some really intriguing ideas of where this all may be going. It isn’t the best of the specials, but it is definitely a bridge to what’s to come.

And, like so many of the specials, the show landed a special cast to help spice it up. Harriet Walter (herself) Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Soulmates) were fun additions. And the return of  Chris Noth reprising his series 11 character was initially concerning, but it ends up working in some fun and cheap ways. And, of course, John Barrowman finally making good on his earlier promise was a hoot. Honestly, he’s the best recurring character in the Who-verse. And, other than the Master, may be the most recurring.

But the real question is was it any good? The answer is mixed. This is neither a stand-alone nor a completely integrated episode. After taking another look at the rest of the season that leads to it, there is a certain amount of completion and resetting for the Doctor. Not all aspects of the story are dealt with in depth, or even believably in some ways, but she has to come to terms with all the new information and her own sense of self. And, frankly, there was a lot to take in. Time became meaningless and her isolation/imprisonment became a gift for her. But it is all solved pretty easily and the main plot, the Daleks, is ultimately a Macguffin (and a bit of a mirror) without a lot of teeth, despite some nice battle effects.

Who, as a series, is still going through its transition with Chibnall pulling hard on the reins taking her to a new path. And Chibnall is still learning how to be a show-runner at this level. I can see a destination that would blow people’s minds, but I honestly don’t know what he has in mind. The show is definitely playing a long game. I do continue to be on board to see what it may be. Most importantly, Jodie Whittaker continues to be entertaining and able to add depth to a character that has been around for over 50 years. I can’t wait to see what the next series brings.

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