Tag Archives: violent

Widows

[4 stars]

Think of this as the flip-side of Ocean’s 8; a very dark and disturbing flip-side, closer to Den of Thieves in sensibility.

Widows is a female-driven heist film dominated by Viola Davis (Fences) and Elizabeth Debicki (The Cloverfield Paradox). These women have the most compelling tales and the strongest screen impact despite it being primarily an ensemble movie. Joined by the equally capable, if less story impactful, Michelle Rodriguez (Battle: Los Angeles, Fast & Furious) and Cynthia Erivo (Bad Times at the El Royale), this group of women find themselves and their mettle trying to survive a lousy situation as they dig themselves out of the holes their respective partners dropped them in.

And speaking of their partners, the top line there is an unusual role for Liam Neeson (Peppermint) and a fairly standard one for Jon Bernthal (Baby Driver). Neeson’s time on screen is necessarily brief, but his and Davis’s intense relationship drive the entire tale. Garret Dillahunt (The Scribbler), Jacki Weaver (The Disaster Artist), and Carrie Coon (Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town) also each get their moments to shine as the story unfolds.

Driving the movie from outside the women’s collective are a group of men, each with their own issues and particular brand of evil. Colin Farrell (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) has the most layered of these characters. He never quite comes into focus, but he is clearly conflicted and buffeted along by the past and the current situation. You never really know whether to feel sorry for him or to revile him. The same can’t be said for Brian Tyree Henry (Irreplaceable You), Daniel Kaluuya (Black Panther), or Robert Duvall (The Judge). These other men are dark, twisted, and out for themselves regardless of the pain and damage they cause. And they do. This is a violent film and hard to watch at moments.

Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Shame) took an interesting risk directing this story. First, he dove into the story quickly, getting to the meat of the tale at the top. Typically, this would have been a good and obvious move. However, then he plowed on before we got to know anyone. He remained very natural rather than heightening or manipulating the audience with standard structures, letting us see realities, but not allowing us to bring emotion to it. We don’t know these people and we can’t yet sympathize with them at the beginning. We can abhor the situations, but there is no connection. The challenge is that it makes the first third of the film very flat in some ways. However, as the movie continues, it slowly builds the story and gets there; but it takes its time.

The story itself has some serious cred behind it. It was originally written by Lynda La Plante (Prime Suspect) and then adapted by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and McQueen himself. None of these artists thinks in a straight line nor bends toward the light and airy in plot. Widows will coddle and assault you, but it will bring you along and make you invest. I will admit that while the ending left me wondering if I’d really understood the McQueen’s main point in the film, but I didn’t feel cheated, only a sense of pondering. It also contained a particularly wonderful moment with mirrors (which seem to be getting more popular again in films).

Widows is not your typical heist film, not just for its female leads, but also in its approach to story. If you want something different for your holiday week’s fare, this is one that should be on your list.

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.

Black Earth Rising

[4 stars]

Like his previous Honourable Woman, Hugo Blick’s Black Earth Rising has a unique tone and flavor determined by its story’s origins. The approach sets his work apart keeps them feeling new, despite recognizable venues, structure, and format. The 8-part road is twisty and complex, but laid out logically and credibly to bring you along, though you are unlikely to get ahead of it. His ability to find strong and capable talent doesn’t hurt the result either.

This story, also like Honourable Woman, is driven by a powerful female character…given terrible life by Michaela Coel (Chewing Gum, Black Mirror). Coel dominates the tale from her first moments on screen until her last in a complicated and dark role. It is riveting and heart-breaking to watch this woman come to terms with her past and her present. She is fiercely intelligent, physically powerful, and with a magnetism that takes over the screen when she appears. She doesn’t steal focus, but she cannot help but remake each scene around herself.

She is joined by John Goodman (Atomic Blonde) who brings us a troubled and layered lawyer seeking justice and happiness, though often watching both slip through his fingers. Harriet Walter (Donmar Project), as her mother, is a study in conflicting emotions; a tight and warring collection of memories and intentions expertly controlled and utterly riveting.

Additional roles fill out the world, with some notable performances by Tamara Tunie (Law & Order: SVU), Noma DumezweniLucian Msamati (The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency), Abena Ayivor, and Emmanuel Imani. But the entire cast is strong.

While these performances alone are a great reason to watch the series, it is the writing and the story that make it worth tuning into this dark but fascinating story about international justice and questions of truth and history. That quality shouldn’t be surprising given it is from Blick as the creator and writer/director for the 8 episode sequence. He also employs some interesting visual approaches to both expose the past and pull themes through the series.

Blick is unafraid of complex questions, politically and personally. He does have a penchant for high conspiracy but, in this case, it feels very logical if disturbing. The point of Black Earth Rising is to raise awareness and to force viewers to recognize some very hard truths about the world and how their own desires help drive it. But it is also a highly personal story and one that is deeply emotional and healing. Whether or not the story gets the accolades it deserves, Coel’s performance will certainly be identified as one of the best of the year.

Suspiria (2018)

[3.5 stars]

While Dakota Johnson (Bad Times at the El Royale) does a passable job in her role, and Chloë Grace Moretz (November Criminals) helps launch the tale, they aren’t the reasons to see this movie. The reason to see this film is Tilda Swinton (Okja), who executes three roles in service to the story and the intent. Her main role is obvious, as the Dance Master of the troop. But the other two roles take a bit of effort to see. All three are done beautifully, with the complex emotions and physicality you’d expect from this wonderful performer. Her efforts alone were worth the price of admission for me.

Director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name) has taken Dario Argento’s original concept and, with the help of David Kajganich’s (A Bigger Splash) script, expanded on it as well as added meat to its bones. This remake is more of a real story than just a psychological splatter pic. The multiple roles for Swinton are just the tip of it. There are dualities and mirrors all over the story, from a divided Berlin to the  Baader-Meinhof connection (and even its subsequent psychological phenomenon) to male/female, high/low, etc. The layering is thick and fast; this is a movie that takes time to unpack.

Let me put it this way: Have you ever finished a film and feel like it came to a point, but have a heck of a time nailing it down? This remake of Suspiria is like that. There is a lot going on with metaphors upon metaphors not to mention just a darn good classic horror/suspense thing going on. But it doesn’t exactly spoon feed you (or force feed you) all of its intent. Some is obvious from the beginning, other aspects develop, and some will likely leave you pondering the purpose. The original was as much art house as it was horror as well, so building on that legacy isn’t a bad thing. It does mean that not everyone will be satisfied, especially when such a classic horror like Halloween is available in the theater next door.

Like the original, this movie is also violent. Whether it is violent toward women or in support of them is arguable. It is intensely weird and definitely dense and inscrutable at times. Guardagnino makes some challenging choices near the end that force you to shift your thinking. But it does feel complete, as I’ve said. The structure is there and, as I chipped away at it for hours after viewing, I made sense of a lot of it. Does that mean it worked or that, despite oblique choices, I was able to create sense out of a chaos? I guess you’ll have to be the judge.

If you’re a fan of the original or like horror that has a bit more going on, like Hereditary, then you should give this a chance. If you don’t want to go to theater, it will end up on Prime eventually, but it is visually impressive on the big screen.

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.

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.

Predator (2018)

[3.5 stars]

The first Predator was popcorn malicious monster mayhem. Then there were a few…let’s just say misfires with a brief the amusement of AVP.  Shane Black (The Nice Guys) and co-writer Fred Dekker (Monster Squad) bring back the action and enhance the humor to bring us a silly romp with lots of fun and, actually, moderated gore despite all the violence. They even open the story with clear nods back to the first movie to anchor us before it starts to veer off. The resulting plot is very much a sequel, but with a reboot feel.

The latest collection of misfit commandos are led by Boyd Holbrook (Logan), who brings brains and brawn to our defenders. But, of course, they are defending against monsters of both alien and human-kind. The latter led by Sterling K. Brown (Black Panther) who chews and chews the scenery until it is a fine, pulpy mass. Fighting alongside Holbrook is a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest of souls.  Thomas Jane (AXL), Alfie Allen (Game of Thrones), Trevante Rhodes (Song to Song), Keegan-Michael Key (Why Him?), and Augusto Aguilera are all more than a little forced (for humor, more than anything else) but they do entertain.

And then there are the outliers that try to broaden the plot and give it a bit more meat. You’ll have to decide for yourself how credibly that is achieved. Jacob Tremblay (Book of Henry) and Yvonne Strahovski (I, FrankensteinHandmaid’s Tale) are each fine in their roles as Holbrook’s semi-estranged family. Tremblay is a bit inconsistent, but Strahovski gets in some good levels. Finally, there is Olivia Munn (Ocean’s 8) who gets to kick some butt and have some fun, but not really much of a purpose. And this is where the movie lost some of its rating for me. There are a lot of intentions toward a complex plot, but not much delivery, just lip service.

Basically, the trick with this film is to not look too closely. Despite many attempts to bring story and explanation to the tale, and some very self-conscious exposition (purposefully done), the story doesn’t really hold up to close inspection. That said, when do they ever? This is entertainment, pure and simple, with a sequel setup and the likely event of there being more to come. It does manage to recreate the fun of the first film again. I laughed, I flinched, and I enjoyed the heck out of the hunt and tech. But this isn’t groundbreaking, just entertaining (which, honestly, can be enough).

The Predator

Peppermint

[3 stars]

There is definitely some fatigue on the vigilante vengeance front. Even with Jennifer Garner’s (Love, Simon) effort, quietly resurrecting aspects of her Alias persona, the entertainment is all pretty standard in this movie. Some great choreography, a few good moments, and a cathartic climax. Also worth noting, while Garner has the attitude to carry off her character, and the moves, she didn’t have the physique, which was distracting. But though the talent was there to help the story succeed, with John Gallagher Jr. (10 Cloverfield Lane) and John Ortiz (Nostalgia)…the movie just sort of floats over the plot with the intention of focusing mostly on the action. To be fair, The Commuter wasn’t much different. And while The Equalizer 2 was an anomaly in its approach, and a little divisive, its first outing was similarly standard.

Over the last year there have been a few female action flicks. Proud Mary, Atomic Blonde, Unlocked, or even Breaking In, just to name a few. They have succeeded and failed in different ways. None has yet found a formula that rivals Liam Neeson’s run or the success of John Wick. Some of that is due to the writing, but I imagine a fair amount is due to the audience expectations as well. No one has given us a female assassin that grabs the imagination in quite the same way and that is unique in both her efforts and her gender. We’ve had kick-ass women in movies over the years: Gloria, Alien, uncountable side-kicks or secondary leads (Wonder Woman and Valkyrie are a different genre and discussion). But society doesn’t seem ready for a real female vigilante. We end up, instead, with folks like Harley Quinn or Imperator Furiosa; strong but broken women seeking restitution.

It is notable that, with the exception of Garner, the only female character of note is Annie Ilonzeh. Is it commentary that it is Garner versus a sea of men or more of the same cultural lag of putting women in lead roles of power and action?

Director Pierre Morel (From Paris with Love) was surely handicapped by his writer, Chad St. John (London Has Fallen), on the story side. But it was his choice to accept the script and direct it, so he has to take some of the blame. And neither of them, nor the studio, were strong enough to do the actual ending the film demanded. That said, this is entertaining, just not a breakaway.

Peppermint

Kin

[2 stars]

Sometimes bad films happen to good casts. This is one of them.

Myles Truitt (Queen Sugar) does an admirable job carrying the film. Jack Reynor (Free Fire) and Zoë Kravitz (Gemini) support him nicely. Dennis Quaid (A Dog’s Purpose ) does well with what he has to work with. Though, honestly, I couldn’t get James Franco’s Future World performance out of my head while watching this variation on his  damaged (and stupid) bad guy. They all try hard to make what is a weak script with lousy plot choices better, but none of them can overcome its inherent weakness.

There are so many ways this movie goes wrong. Some of them are not its fault. There are intentional choices, that I respect, but which were executed poorly. The intent was to make a small, intimate and personal film about family and a kid coming of age in extraordinary circumstances. That shouldn’t have precluded making it more dynamic and interesting, but in this case it did. The pacing is slow and while the stakes are high, the emotions just aren’t there. The other problems were just bad choices and bad writing. And there is lots of both.

To be fair, I really was hoping for something a bit more Attack the Block than Sleight. In the end it was really just a weak prequel to a story we’ll never see. It comes off more as a bad TV pilot rather than a franchise launch. All of that is at the feet of Jonathan and Josh Baker and their writer, Casey, who penned the adaptation of their previous short film, Bag Man. In expanding that small idea into something new, the group made the fatal error of holding back all the interesting ideas till near the end. In trying to make a film about family, despite its trappings, they completely misjudged their opportunities when it came to the story. You aren’t left at the end looking forward to seeing what comes next, you’re wondering why the heck you had to slog through what came before to get left hanging just as it got interesting.

There are moments and short sequences that really show some directing promise from the Bakers; I would definitely give them another chance. Certainly their judgement to take the script they did is suspect, but there is ability there. However, I wouldn’t waste your time on this first outing in theater. If you want to check it out on disc or stream at some point where you can yell to your heart’s content at the characters or simply walk away without guilt, do that instead.

Kin

Mile 22

[2.5 stars]

Oh, Peter Berg (Battleship), you always promise so much and deliver so little. This bit of what amounts to terrorist porn is certainly full of action, but bereft of character. While Mark Whalberg (Ted 2) may have created a fast-talking and somewhat entertaining team leader, he isn’t a person, he is simply putting on an interesting idea.

And while there are strong female parts, they aren’t much in the way of characters either. Ronda Rousey (Furious 7) doesn’t really get to explore what she had to work with. And Lauren Cohan (Chuck, The Walking Dead), who is certainly a tough-as-nails fighter, overplays the mother side of what was written. Not because a kick-ass military person can’t have family and emotion in their lives or even care that much, but because she came off as schizophrenic rather than as competent; and she’s meant to be Wahlberg’s protege.

Iko Uwais (The Raid 2) shows off his skills as a fighter and, to a degree, as an actor. To be fair, he really just has to look enigmatic most of the time rather than plumb any serious levels. And John Malkovich reprises his Unlocked gig, which isn’t saying much for a man with such talent.

Where this movie really goes wrong isn’t so much in its conception or even its subject matter. Even the basic plot is intriguing. Where it goes wrong is the framing, which is, essentially, a solipsistic treatise excusing government funded murder as necessary, even to be celebrated. For some audiences that will work just fine. In the world we live in now, even while admitting I was mildly entertained by the action and well paced suspense, I found the message rather off-putting at the end. Nearly the same plot could have been used without the commentary and it would have worked better. As it is, you go for the action, blood, and gore, if you go, but not for the story or any cogent political awakening.

Mile 22