Tag Archives: popcorn

The Darkest Minds

[3 stars]

I have to admit, this movie was a good deal better than I expected given how badly it bombed at the box office. That doesn’t mean it’s great, but it was watchable…with occasional moments of yelling at the screen for dumb story choices. I’ll get back to the writing, but better first to compliment the cast who shouldn’t be overlooked for the weaknesses in the production.

Amandla Stenberg, who got her first big break as Rue in The Hunger Games, leads the cast of young actors through this latest hellish landscape of a dystopian future. She does so with a good deal of charisma and a nice emotional journey. Along with her companions, Harris Dickinson (Trust), Skylan Brooks (The Get Down), and Miya Cech, they battle their way to a potential future. And, of course, there’s the only slightly veiled, slightly creepy (and much toned down from book) Patrick Gibson (The OA) who joins them along the way.

The young cast hang onto control of the movie well, even when there are much more practiced adult actors sharing the stage with them. Among those, Mandy Moore (47 Meters Down), Gwendoline Christie (Top of the Lake: China Girl), and Wade Williams are the ones that pop. And then, of course, there is the amusing West Wing revenge of Bradley Whitford (The Post) who finally gets to sit in the President’s chair for this one.

Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson (Kung Fu Panda) managed her cast and the material she had well. But that is the problem, the material, which is solidly tween/teen in its maturity.

So, now back to the story itself.

Writer Chad Hodge (Wayward Pines) delivered a very un-adult script. Why things happen and how the world deals with them are lensed through the mind of a teen, with a teen’s understanding of how the world works. I’m not talking about perspective of the film, I’m talking about the writer and the amount of thought and research he put into their plot. If I’d known it was Hodge behind the keyboard going in I’d have been less surprised.

Dystopian stories are currently all the rage, but they are all riding the coattails of The Hunger Games. Hunger Games didn’t create YA dystopias, but it certainly set the expectation bar for how much money could be made by turning them into movies. The problem is, the studios have never understood why that movie took off and others (The Host, Divergent, Maze Runner, etc.) never really did.

Certainly there was a difference in the quality of the writing and, in some cases, the quality of the casting and/or directing. But really the answer is much simpler. Hunger Games, for all its futuristic framework, looks like this world and acts (mostly) like this world, and included adult thinking in its plot choices. It also took an important lesson from the Harry Potter series.

People who don’t read a great deal of science fiction or fantasy are not comfortable in thoroughly made-up worlds they are unfamiliar with. Hunger Games, like Potter, slowly acclimated a generation of readers into its world. Potter spent more than the first half of the first book in an English town and then only slowly opened the world around Hogwarts over the next 2 books. By the time they got there, most readers were completely unaware of the journey they’d taken and were willing to accept all amount of strangeness, because now it was familiar. Hunger Games managed a similar, if a bit more rapid, immersion.

Darkest Minds is a familiar world, but almost immediately has people with powers, which jumps the credibility line for a good deal of the viewing public. They’ll buy into it, but in fewer numbers and with a good deal of tongue-in-cheek nodding. It’s a shame, really, as almost all fiction these days is really genre based…Michael Crichton started that trend in spades decades back. But if the world is familiar enough to start, you can get an audience to go with you. This movie leaps too quickly into the weird and different to bring a large audience with it.

If you’re looking for distraction and some reasonable performances from up and coming young adults, it isn’t a bad afternoon. Certainly it is no more than a popcorn flick with grand intentions that are never achieved. Reaching for franchise had it stumbling. They should have gone for a standalone and hoped for the chance to take it further. The meat of a story was in there. The script let it down.

The Darkest Minds

The Girl in the Spider’s Web

[2.5 stars]

When Stieg Larsson died in 2004, he left us all hanging on the intended fate of Lisbeth Salander. His first three books weren’t the entire journey he’d envisioned. His fourth book will never see the light of day due to legal stupidity and family greed. And the final six lived only in his head. However, his remaining legal family licensed out the characters and commissioned more books, starting with The Girl in the Spider’s Web. I refused to support the ongoing book series, but I couldn’t resist checking out the movie. I wish I had.

Despite some real effort on the part of Claire Foy (First Man), this is a hollow movie with no heart at the core. The gap is in the plot and the script, which assume you know the previous stories (and are willing to forget parts of it as well). The story also veers radically from the central drives for Salandar and her relationships in the world.

This is most notable with Sverrir Gudnason (The Circle), who does a fine job of acting, but he isn’t Blomkvist. He’s far to young and pretty. And he has no emotional thread to grasp; though one is indicated in the script, the story isn’t there. He is a complicated man with complicated relationships, not just a foil or convenience with which to move the plot. Even the usually entertaining hacker Plague, Cameron Britton (Mindhunter), was somewhat flat in this story.

Three new characters were introduced into the series. Stephen Merchant (Logan) probably had the most levels to play with because the writers had to give him a story; we knew nothing about him from the beginning and it is his actions that start the plot. On the other hand Lakeith Stanfield (Sorry to Bother You) is OK, but sort of cookie-cutter American NSA from a European point of view. The writers assumed actions would obviate the need for character on his part. They were wrong.

More surprising was the lack of a character for Sylvia Hoeks (Blade Runner 2049) playing Lisbeth’s sister. Forgetting how this and the rest of the revised/ignored backstory affects the series canon, there were rich possibilities for this woman, none of which were plumbed.

Director and co-writer Fede Alvarez (Don’t Breathe) did a beautiful visual job with the film. He also managed to capture the Swedish emotional sense with a lot of the characters. But he failed to recognize the weaknesses in the script and fight for better. And he allowed cliche to triumph over effort by some of his cast.

So the core issues of this come back to the script by writers Steven Knight (November Criminals) and Jay Basu. It feels like they took a passing knowledge of the books and decided to take those characters and throw them into a standard story. There is a small nod to the core of Salander’s, saving women or reacting to injustice, but that is simply there as a short grace note before dropping her into a Bond-like story that just isn’t a good fit and doesn’t further her purpose. However, and in some ways worse, some of the law enforcement research is awful, making the Swedish police and secret service into idiots.

So, to sum up, this is a somewhat mediocre action film and a very poor continuation of the Millennium series. Foy does a game job capturing the character, but never really gets to emotionally explore or expand her. As a stand-alone flick, without any knowledge of the base tale, you’d be watching a rather empty action movie with some clever bits to it. And there are some good moments and aspects, but this could have been a triumph, especially in the current climate. I’ll leave it to you whether or not to spend you time with it.

Overlord

[3 stars]

If you were somehow lucky enough to miss all the ads and trailers for Overlord, stop now and just see the movie blind. Honestly, the studio really did the flick a disservice by telling you what it was about. Part of the fun of the film is watching it all getting revealed, and they took that from me in spades.

OK, from here out I’m assuming you’ve seen the trailers and the ads. You’ve been warned.

Sure this is nothing but an update to Resident Evil by way of Dunkirk, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. It is, in fact, fairly well done and full of good moments, surprises, and the kind of splatter that combination would suggest. There is also a real sense of a good war film here that goes, shall we say, quite sideways. It is well shot and really rather well acted by most of the leads.

Jovan Adepo (Fences) is our way into this band of brothers…and it is very much a bro film. But Adepo gives it both heart and sense of danger. From early on it is clear that no one is safe in this story and that registers clearly for him, and through him to us. The machines of war quickly begin to eat up the people we meet.

Alongside Adepo fight a mixed batch of characters that each bring different levels and layers to the story. Wyatt Russell (Ingrid Goes West) is the seasoned veteran there to run the mission. John Magaro (Carol) is the smart-mouth jackass who nevertheless proves his mettle. And Mathilde Ollivier, in an early film for her, gives them something to fight for and just a touch of badly needed estrogen in the film. In a smaller role, but fun to see, is Iain De Caestecker (Lost River, The Fades) who does a great accent and has a bit of fun.

Arrayed against this motley gang are the Axis. Only a single Nazi stands out worth mentioning in that bunch: Pilou Asbæk (Ghost in the Shell). While it is a somewhat scenery chewing depiction of a German officer, he manages to find some balance, though not any heart. He certainly finds the creepy, which was his purpose in the tale.

Julius Avery (Son of a Gun) delivers a very watchable, enjoyable, and surprising movie for his Sophomore outing. Sure it is of a particular genre, but he doesn’t treat it that way. He treats it like a film about war, people, and the horror of what it takes to win and survive. Part of that success was the script from an unlikely pairing of Billy Ray (Hunger Games) and Mark L. Smith (The Revenant). Both writers have a wide range of styles, but of very different sensibilities. Playing off the real events of Operation Overlord gave the two a solid underpinning for the story and its drives that allowed their talents to mesh well.

This was originally rumored to be a Cloverfield universe film. It is, in fact, designed much like those movies…slowly unrolling layers that end with unexpected aspects. But it isn’t part of that franchise in any other way. I wish the studio had believed in the quality of the film and allowed it to surprise and gather an audience. I get that it would have been challenging given the genre mash-up. Folks going for a war film would have been pissed and those showing up for pure horror would have been confused and angry that it doesn’t really become that till more than halfway through. But the story is compelling, well-paced, and nicely delivered. Definitely worth the big screen if you like either mashups, splatter horror, or both. And Avery is definitely a director you’re going to be seeing again, regardless of how Overlord legs out or not at the box office.

Bohemian Rhapsody

[4 stars]

I want to be clear before I go any further: I had a great time with this movie. I grew up with Queen. I saw them in concert. I still must stop everything and sing along with a good part of their music. The audience I saw it with even broke into spontaneous applause at the end. Bohemian Rhapsody is a beautiful fantasy, a love-letter to Queen and, more specifically, Freddie Mercury.

And speaking of, Rami Malek’s (Mr Robot) Freddie Mercury is  a wonder to behold. He so captures the movements and look as to make you think you’re seeing the real thing. In fact, the casting generally was astounding in terms of matching people. Gwilym Lee (Isle of Dogs), Ben Hardy (X-Men: Apocalypse), and Joseph Mazzello (G.I. Joe: Retaliation) also did wonderful jobs matching the iconic group.

The casting continued into the supporting cast. Surrounding the band, Lucy Boynton (Sing Street), Aidan Gillen (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword), Allen Leech (Bellevue), Aaron McCusker (Fortitude), and Tom Hollander (Tulip Fever) were all wonderful. Only Mike Myers felt out of place, simply because he was there as a nose-thumbing joke even if he did the part well.

But here’s the thing. Sure it was entertaining. Yes, the music is amazing, but it always was. The music was used brilliantly to support the story too. If you loved Queen going in, you are sure to love the movie. But it isn’t a good film, no matter how well it works.

Director Bryan Singer (X-Men: Apocalypse) crammed it with cheap moments and huge assumptions about what you knew.  The narrative is confused and meandering. Writers Anthony McCarten (The Darkest Hour) and Peter Morgan (The Crown) made it difficult to follow the timeline and presented Queen’s rise and their artistic creation look absurdly simple. Like I said initially, a wonderful fantasy but hardly a honest biopic or look at the effort involved.

[If you think I’m being harsh, check out this much blunter and, frankly, not far off the mark commentary.]

There is a journey for Mercury in the final cut. It is sort of him finding and accepting himself (again, this ends up oversimplified and weirdly easy despite the ending). The final result is oddly triumphant amid the tragedy that was the end of Freddie’s life. Who would have thought you’d get a foot-tapping crowd-pleaser of a man dying of AIDS?

So, should you see this? If you love Queen’s music, absolutely. See it on the big screen. Get lost in the fantasy that you are given. Cheer the ending. Just don’t think you got the real or full story. That doesn’t mean you can’t have fun.

Boundaries

[3 stars]

This is a hard one to discuss. There are reasons to see this movie, but it isn’t ultimately for the story. Rather, you see this for the performances.

Christopher Plummer (Remember) sheds all of his typical uptightness and let’s loose with a morally reprehensible character who is also funny as hell. Vera Farmiga (The Commuter) as his semi-wannabe-estranged daughter manages to present the conflict of an ignored and abused child-now-adult dealing with the fallout. And as her son, Lewis MacDougall (A Monster Calls) creates a third generation casualty of the same. The dance between these three is the movie and is just as often disturbing as it is amusing. Around them are a collection of other interesting characters which they bounce off of during a most unusual road trip.

The issue with this movie isn’t that it isn’t entertaining, it is. And I will warn you that I am possibly giving away a bit here: It is also some of the worst wish-fulfillment and glossing of issues I’ve seen in similarly talent-laden movies. Real issues are brought up in the story. Real moments and confrontations occur throughout. But, somehow, that all gets forgotten or forgiven with barely a blink. Honestly, I kinda had to grit my teeth through the fairy tale ending and final cascade of shots. Writer/director Shana Feste (Country Strong) should be banned from creating scripts until she learns how to really commit and tell the story she intended (laughs, warts, and all) and not wimp out. There was a different road that could have been taken and that still could have been redemptive.

So should you see this? Yes. See it for the main actors and their supporting cast. There are some really good and complex performances. Just be prepared for a less than genuine resolution.

Halloween (2018)

[3.5 stars]

This sequel is different than most. One of its most radical choices is that it discarded every film that followed the 1978 original, even those with Jamie Lee Curtis in them, to give us a different follow-up and one more fitting for the times. The depiction of a woman under threat and not being believed becomes a metaphor made manifest. The result is a bit more than a slasher flick…but not much. Though it tried to subvert that formula, it ended up bowing to the weight of expectation and gave in a bit too often.

Along with Curtis Judy Greer (Wilson) and Andi Matichak as her daughter and granddaughter add some generational expansion and views. And there is a host of potential and realized fodder with some nice talent throughout, including Virginia Gardner (Runaways) and Dylan Arnold (Mudbound) for some nice teenage hijinks. The rest of the cast is good. But then there was Haluk Bilginer’s (Rosewater) shrink, who fills the hole left by the late Donald Pleasence. Like Dr. Loomis, he is an obsessive with his own agenda. This is also where the script is at its weakest and moves the furthest from its updated feel. But none of it is far from the genre.

Director and co-writer David Gordon Green (Your Highness) was a mere 3 years old when the original Halloween hit screens in 1978 and spawned a 40 year franchise. Despite growing up with the sequels, he really managed to make it his own but with nods to both the original and the sequels as we knew them. Stylistically, however, it fits right in with the original. The script, co-written with Danny McBride (Hell and Back) and Jeff Fradley shows a real love for the series and the horror experience. It isn’t brilliant, but it manages a few surprises and some grounded aspects to its plotting.

As a side note, I’ve been watching a number of conversations about why horror is making such a come-back these days. One explanation is that horror is best experienced with others in a theater, that is more fun and satisfying that way. Sure, I’ll give you that, but I think it has more to do with our current state of the world. As with during the Cold War, people want safe ways to feel scared and in control. Then it was primarily scifi monsters. There is also a new trend in horror (Get Out, Quiet Place, It), that takes itself seriously as film, not just pulp. Halloween doesn’t rise to that level, though it certainly takes itself a half-step above pure slasher film by the end very cleverly.

For the heck of it, I also decided to see this in one of AMC’s new Dolby theaters, assuming that sound was more important than visuals for this kind of skin crawl and seat jump film. I have to say, the visuals and sound are pretty astounding. While it doesn’t quite have the visual scope of IMAX, it certainly has impact. If you’re wanting to try it out, pick a film like this one to try it out where you are less invested and think sound will be impactful.

But back to the film in question. If you like this kind of horror or just have a penchant for Halloween, you’ll have fun with this. I wish it had been a little more, but I definitely had fun and appreciated the result.

The Titan

[3 stars]

Back in 1976 Frederik Pohl wrote the classic Man Plus.  Though unacknowledged (perhaps even unaware), The Titan leans heavily on this earlier tale. But while the film is engaging for the majority of the story, it ultimately loses its thread. So, if you like the idea, read Man Plus for a better sense of follow-through and completeness. But that is the fault of the script, not the cast who try to elevate the results admirably.

Sam Worthington (Hacksaw Ridge) is certainly the focus of a lot of the movie, but this is really more Taylor Schilling’s (Orange is the New Black) story. Add in Noah Jupe (A Quiet Place) and you have a nice atomic family from which to fission. The family also get some solid time to set up their relationships before the inevitable.

A couple of other performances worth calling out are Nathalie Emmanuel (Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials) and Diego Boneta (Before I Fall) as additional volunteers for the experiments. Neither gets to fully realize their stories, but each tries to fill out their characters with more than your usual depth for this kind of film.

Running the program are Tom Wilkinson (Denial) and Agyness Deyn (Hard Sun).Both try to overcome their weak scripts, but only so much could be done. Wilkinson especially gets short-shrift thanks to the clumsy final third of the story. Up till then he was a driven man, trying to do well by humanity against horrible odds and near-despicable means. But he ends up being devolved into a pointless villain.

For a first feature, Lennart Ruff does a good job focusing the story on his initial intent: what do these changes mean to Worthington and his family. There are some clever visuals and nice moments to establish the story and the relationships, even if the production design feels off for the world he created and the science is, at best, wishful and often absurd. However, despite the nice emotional arc that Ruff builds, the last third of the film devolves into truly bad sf and action/horror. Also, the ending is forced, confusing, and unsatisfying thanks to losing track of their original point for the plot.

However, more important to recognize is that the film feels more like a book than a movie, especially in its pacing. I can enjoy that when it is done well, but this just felt like a clumsy but true adaptation, though again no acknowledgement of a prior work was made. This flick really did need to be more of a movie.

I will admit that I thought I knew where they would go, which may have been a bit derivative as well, but would have been more satisfying and more on point for the purpose of the Titan project. But I was wrong, for better or worse.

If you like near-term science fiction (even though this defies the likely possibilities) give this a shot. The effort is there even if the control isn’t. How you react to the finale will depend a lot on your own likes and dislikes. It certainly isn’t off from a lot out there, but it had real potential to exceed the common drivel and squandered it.

S.M.A.R.T. Chase

[2 stars]

I would have hoped that the director of the clever and intense Marcella, Charles Martin, could have produced a more watchable action/suspense story. The script certainly didn’t help the problem. Even with Orlando Bloom (Unlocked) in the lead, the story is barely watchable and completely and utterly unbelievable. Even the chases and fights are less than totally engaging in the way they’re filmed.

Hannah Quinlivan (Skyscraper), Simon Yam (Man of Tai Chi), Lynn Hung (Ip Man), and relative newcomers Jing Liang and Lei Wu all do their best. However, the struggle with language is obvious, which likely caused changes in the script for ease. Also, the halfway split between Western and Shanghai styled films leaves the movie with little solid ground. It is neither with enough plot for one nor broad enough for the other. Ultimately, this flick is just a set of relatively boring chase and action scenes despite some real potential in the plot. Best to avoid this one unless you absolutely must see Bloom in everything he does.

S.M.A.R.T. Chase

Bad Times at the El Royale

[4 stars]

Are you looking for something different? Then checking into the El Royale may be your best destination. Director and writer Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, The Martian) has a very particular style to his film making. His stories have a similar color pallet and the plots are recognizable but not formulaic. They buck tradition but cleave to a sense of moral reality that is believable. They feel almost refreshing in their approach despite playing heavily into genre, whether that is horror, science fiction, or, in this case, noir. And his stories are chock full of subtle references for those steeped in the movies and television. (One nod to Silence of the Lambs was inspired.) This story is subtly political in its message as well.

Goddard is also good at assembling talented casts capable of bringing his vision to life in earnest without losing track of the style he is aiming for. Jeff Bridges (Kingsman: The Golden Circle) and Cynthia Erivo (The Tunnel) are particularly solid at driving a good part of the action. But Jon Hamm (Nostalgia), Dakota Johnson (A Bigger Splash), Cailee Spaeny (Pacific Rim: Uprising), and Lewis Pullman (Battle of the Sexes) complete the ensemble of odd characters who, despite coming to the El Royale for different reasons, find their paths crossing in unexpected ways. Nick Offerman (Hearts Beat Loud) has a nice cameo as well. As a final treat, Goddard got Chris Hemsworth (Thor: Ragnarok, Avengers) to reteam with him for a funny and terrifying role that continues to help establish his range (he can’t be Thor forever).

Like Cabin in the Woods, I suspect this film will take time to find its audience, which is a shame. It is crafted beautifully. Despite its almost 2.5 hour length it moves along crisply and keeps opening up surprises through till the finale. It is solidly acted and funny as well as dark and dangerous as its centering genre. It is very much a classic noir, but with Goddard at the helm very little can ever be assumed, and that is part of the joy of the story. And, as only his second stint in the director’s chair, it shows immense promise for what may come in the future as well. If you’re tired of sequels and formulaic drivel, support movies like this one that try to do something a bit different.

Venom

[3 stars]

Bottom line: It’s not bad, but it’s so not Marvel Studios.

When Sony last attempted to bring Venom to screen it was one of Sam Rami’s misfires: Spider-Man 3.  Their record hasn’t been the best with this universe from there forward (Spider-Man: Homecoming is really a Marvel film, so that doesn’t count). So, needless to say, I went into this movie with concerns but with an open mind and hope. There are some good aspects to what they delivered, but overall it is full of short cuts, almost unwatchable fight scenes (especially on IMAX), and comic-book logic full of science and plot holes, not to mention bad character choices. At only about 90 minutes of story (and 18 of credits) they didn’t take the time the story deserved. Entertaining? Sure, but not brilliant.

Despite this being a tent-pole flick, the entire movie spins around only three characters. Tom Hardy (The Revenant) toplines. He brings an interesting aspect to Eddie, but he isn’t very credible as a star investigative reporter. There is something just a bit dim about Hardy’s portrayal and the story has him just a bit too reckless to have gotten to such a height in his career.

Michelle Williams (I Feel Pretty) character holds her own better and has a bit more built in to make us respect her. Is she tough and judgmental? Yes, but with cause and she is anything but dumb.

On the other side of the coin is Riz Ahmed (Una), who presents a particular kind of sociopath impressively. He is a chameleon at the edge of social norms and, at this point in his life, often unconcerned about wearing his mask of normality. It isn’t a mustache twirling lord of evil, but he does borderline the geography. And, of course, it becomes a heavy-handed metaphor for the story.

A few smaller roles add to the mix, in particular Jenny Slate (Gifted). And, of course, there is the small cameo of Wood Harrelson (Shock and Awe) to hint at things to come. For the sharp eye, there is also Michelle Lee (Altered Carbon) floating around for a while.

Primarily used to TV, director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) has had mixed success on the big screen. Despite its record opening, I don’t think this is setting him apart. The script, though co-written by the Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle team, Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg, along with Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks), doesn’t really capitalize on any of their talents fully and devolves into easy things from the genre rather than breaking new ground or showing us something new. In fact, Venom doesn’t even acknowledge the rest of the MCU…no Spider-man, no Avengers, no aliens and alien tech. It is completely stand-alone and isolated, which just feels weird given Homecoming and the other 17 films that have built out that world.

Sony may have been mostly responsible for the comic-book Renaissance on screen thanks to the Rami trilogy they had the guts and vision to produce, but they’ve yet to learn how to do it well. The fear is that they will drive the Spidey universe into the ground yet again. And, given what they have planned on slate for the next several years, it is almost a guarantee. They are rushing to monetize the success of their partnership with Marvel without understanding why and how what they did with them worked. I will grant them the acting talent in the popcorner, they just have to get better scripts and someone solid to run the franchise with a longer vision.

All that said, this is a 90 minute romp with some good moments and some nice humor. It is far too short for an origin film of this complexity, but if you don’t care about the longevity of the series, it will probably do. I don’t suggest IMAX as it didn’t add much and some of the filming is too tight for the format.

Venom