Tag Archives: violent

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

Two Weeks To Live

[3 stars]

If you like the nihilist humor of The End of the F***ing World, the wry and sad romance of Dead Pixels, and enjoy watching Maisie Williams (iBoy), this one’s for you. Especially as Al Campbell, the man who directed Dead Pixels, directed all these episodes as well.

Two Weeks, as a title, is a little misleading. The reference is an oblique nod to events. But, ultimately, it’s metaphorical and the driving sensibility to choices that need to be made. Primarily, the show is really a vehicle for Williams, though she has some nice support from Sian Clifford (Fleabag) and Mawaan Rizwan who provide solid backboards for her humor.

When you’re looking for short and amusing, with some entertaining surprises, this will do. It’s a bit violent and the ending certainly sets up another round, but the six half-hour episodes tell a complete story. For a bit of dark funny, it certainly worked for me.

Two Weeks to Live Poster

Ava

[3 stars]

It’s easy to see why the cast signed on to this action flick. The bones of a great story are there in Matthew Newton’s (Who We Are Now) script. And, as we’ve seen recently, every female lead wants to make their mark as an action figure these days: Mad Max, Atomic Blonde, Red Sparrow, Rhythm Section…the list goes on. And with a better director than Tate Taylor (The Girl on the Train) this film may have actually been something to see and a franchise opportunity rather than a one-shot wonder.

Jessica Chastain (X-Men: Dark Phoenix) delivers a deeply flawed character who has found her way in the world, only to discover it’s a dead end. Around her are a number of other great talents, from John Malkovich (The Rhythm Section) and Geena Davis (Marjorie Prime), to Colin Farrell (Dumbo) and Joan Chen (White Frog). Even Common (Smallfoot) has a small role. But other than brief moments for each, none get to build out something that feels complete nor ever quite believable. And, to be honest, there are some painfully bad on-screen moments for each as well.

In the end, all the potential really got lost in cheap choices and lackluster control by Taylor. Even the action sequences were choppy and not particularly well filmed.

There’s still some enjoyment to be had here, but this isn’t the film it could have been. Given the cast and what I could see in the story, I really found myself demanding more, which is why I’m so disappointed. It’s still a diverting movie and worth seeing, if you like such films, but it should have been so much more (have I mentioned that already?).

Ava Poster

Helstrom

[3 stars]

Hulu’s latest Marvel adaptation is quite the dark ride. A cross between Constantine and Legion, it’s a psychological and (literal) hell-ride for a pair of sibs battling their past and fighting for their future.

The pacing is a bit slow, but the intensity remains high. So does the hyperbole. Subtle writing this isn’t, nor does it have many surprises. There are a few, however, and they are big ones.

While Tom Austen (The Royals) and Sydney Lemmon (Velvet Buzzsaw) are the center of the show, it’s really more carried by the side characters. Elizabeth Marvel (Manifest), Robert Wisdom (Motherless Brooklyn), and Alain Uy (The Passage) all have better lines and more interesting challenges, whereas the main characters seem somewhat hemmed in by the genre. I will grant that Lemmon has a nice arc while Austen is just relentlessly earnest.

As a series Helstrom has more promise than delivery, but there is definitely promise and I’d like to see where they go next and if they can raise the bar. Here’s hoping for a second season and a bit more rigor.

Helstrom Poster

A One Lane Mystery Road

I’ve grouped these two mystery series because they have some similarities. The common thread, despite the difference in country, is indigenous peoples. In fact, the main detective in both series represents this oft time side-lined culture. Interestingly, they have similar sensibilities, though very different tenors.

One Lane Bridge

This is the inaugural series of what is somewhere between a rough-edged mystery, similar to many Northern England shows like Shetland or Hinterland, but with a bit of aboriginal mythos thrown in. It has a few recognizable faces, if you watch New Zealand shows. The basic story is a simple family murder. Dominic Ona-Ariki (Filthy Rich) gets it as his first case in the remote town to which he’s moved.

Among the faces you might know are Joel Tobeck (The Blake Mysteries: Ghost Story), Alison Bruce (Top of the Lake), and Michelle Langstone (800 Words). They also have some of the more complicated story lines, though they aren’t the main focus of the story.

We don’t really get to know much of why Ariki’s there in series 1, nor much about his background. He does, however, solve the season’s mystery so nothing of importance is left hanging. But a lot is held back and many things are clearly queued up for a second series. Despite the grit and anger of it all, I’d be back to see what they can make of it. The characters are rich and full of stories.

Mystery Road

And speaking of grit and anger, this second season of the movie adaptation of this series is just full of it. Aaron Pedersen (The Code) returns as the swaggering, grumpy loner who’s trying to single-handedly clean up the Australian outback and northern coast. Tasma Walton (Cleverman) returns as his frustrated ex-wife and Sofia Helin (The Bridge) joins as one of the principle variables, which was certainly a draw for me.

This is a heavy feeling storyline of angry people and nefarious doings. But there are interesting characters and fascinating insights into culture that you won’t get anywhere else. I can’t take too much of it at once… the writing often makes choices for the convenience of the action, rather than what people would normally do, but it’s entertaining and even spiked with adrenaline at times.

One Lane Bridge Mystery Road Poster

Utopia (2020)

[3.5 stars]

When Gillian Flynn (Widows) announced she was going to tackle the remake of this UK, well if not classic, certainly watershed, I was dubious. Even more so when she asserted she was going to focus more on the dark emotions and avoid the pervasive violence of it all. To be clear, what she has done, and done well, is not toned down the violence so much as gotten creative with its portrayal; there is less in-your-face splatter and more moments of unseen or cleverly filmed action. In other words, this is still exceedingly dark and violent, which it needs to be. But there is also some nice, if not complete, character work.

This remake starts off very much along the same thread as its inspiration. So much so that I was frankly getting a little impatient, even with the different approach. And then it took a hard left turn at the end of the second episode and I was hooked.

Certainly the cast is a good one. Sasha Lane (Hellboy) builds on her varied career as a borderline sociopath in search of her father. And Christopher Denham (Fast Color) expands as an actual sociopath on her heels. But around them are a slew of recognizable faces and performances. From John Cusack (Singularity) and Rainn Wilson (The Boy) at one end of the experience spectrum to Desmin Borges, Dan Byrd (Cougar Town), Ashleigh LaThrop, and Javon ‘Wanna’ Walton at the other. And plenty of other faces show up as well, like Jessica Rothe (Happy Death Day 2U) and Camryn Manheim (Cop Car).

But Flynn is a dispassionate writer, willing to go very dark places without compunction, but not very good at building sympathy. I found it difficult to connect with any of the characters beyond sympathizing with their shock. Only Denham and the two youngest characters, Farrah Mackenzie and Walton, really had me in sync with them. I didn’t have a similar challenge with the UK version. I think this is something to do with the scripts and assumptions made by Flynn about how deeply or demonstrative the characters needed to be to bring us on board. It probably wasn’t helped by American-style casting, which tends toward less real looking people in favor of pretty.

All that said, the show has some interesting reconceptions and some odd accelerations as compared to the UK plot. The ending is rather rushed and, frustratingly, rather wide open (not to mention a bit absurd in many ways). But I was left curious…which is what they wanted to do. I’d go back to see if they can actually build on the first series. But, it’s also worth noting that for a lot of the viewing public, this is either a show dead-on for the times or far too close to the bone for many people to watch. Also some of the messaging is a bit off for what we need now…so there’s that.

Here’s the thing: If you’ve never seen the original UK version of this story, I still highly recommend it. Like Misfits and other dark and unexpected tales of their times, they were blazing new trails in storytelling for television. They were doing it in style and with a clear sense of violating norms (that have admittedly become more the norm due to their success). Give this version a shot as well, but be prepared for some very un-American plot choices and a story that may ultimately infuriate rather than entertain, despite a few amazing performances (or perhaps because of them). I’m definitely curious to see if they can fully win me over in a second series by building on what they did in the first, and taking into account the world now as it has changed (our real world, that is).

Utopia Poster Utopia Poster

RoboGeisha

[2.5 stars]

Every bit as silly and bloody as you expect from the title…and, yes, it is bat-shit crazy. It is, in fact, so bizarre that it was even more fun to watch with the badly dubbed English 5.1 track (rather than the original Japanese stereo with subtitles).

Truthfully, I can’t defend this movie on any level. It isn’t quite “so bad it’s good” like the old Ed Wood films. But it isn’t so full of itself that isn’t also punching itself in the face consciously. Writer/director Noboru Iguchi is clearly a prolific, gonzo creator. He has no boundaries and an evil sense of humor.

So, I admit: I laughed a lot. I hope it was in places Iguchi intended. But I can’t say I’d seek out any more of his work. One was enough. You may find him more to your liking.

RoboGeisha Poster

Ju-on: Origins

[4 stars]

Japanese horror is a unique and dark corner in the genre. It’s sense of what is evil is very different from Western stories of ghosts and monsters. Evil is a thing that can be attached to places, people, animals, elements…just about anything. It is without conscience and not always with a particular purpose, though it often is brought forth from or echos real-life events.

Ju-on, the movie, was terrifying. Even its American remake was solidly creepy and disturbing. This series makes them both seem tame. It is darker than dark, twisted, and asks the question: where does evil begin (if the title wasn’t enough of a clue).

The series is told with interleaving/overlapping time-periods to lay out the story, ultimately with it all coming together in the final episodes. But it never quite fully defines what is happening and why; not unusual in Japanese horror. It does provide events and suggestions, but there would seem to be a bigger tale to tell, and, perhaps, an as yet unrevealed purpose behind the hauntings. And, yes, though it resolves a good deal of the threads, it left open the story in a way that allows it to continue if it gets renewed. Actually, it kind of demands more episodes to resolve it all. Much of the credit to the creepy goes to the writers. Hiroshi Takahashi worked on some of the Ju-on sequels and Takashige Ichise on Ringu and its sequels. But director Shô Miyake found a great visual language to depict their story, even if the edits and clarity weren’t always the best.

Do not go into this series lightly. I am not a squeamish sort. I enjoy Japanese horror in all its bloody and gooey splendor. But this embraces that and adds a layer of truly uncomfortable imagery and events that left my skin crawling. And yet, I’d be back if they continue it, just to see how they pull it together.

Ju-On: Origins Poster

The Rhythm Section

[3 stars]

As a follow-up to his quirky I Think We’re Alone Now, director Reed Morano brought us this contemplative actioner. That may seem a contradiction in terms…and it sort of is…but he stuck to his intent throughout, and I give him props for that. But it does make for a slow kind of assassin film. Think The Tourist rather than Taken or even Atomic Blonde.

Since Gloria proved it was possible, the number of tough female killers has been multiplying; particularly lately. They aren’t all home runs, but it is great to see so many more female driven actioners these days. Blake Lively (A Simple Favor) tackles the role with intensity and humility. It is, in some ways, reminiscent of Cameron Diaz’s turn in Being John Malkovich, when she allowed herself to be, well, completely unattractive in order to serve the part and movie. But, unlike Diaz, Lively drives this movie.

Jude Law (Vox Lux) and Sterling K. Brown (Waves) provide the higher profile support to Lively. Law is actually surprisingly credible in his role. Brown is as well, but it is less of a stretch role for him.

The real challenge for this movie was it’s script by first-timer Mark Burnell, who adapted his own novel for this outing. The story itself isn’t quite credible, though it is also clear it is intended as an origin story for a potential franchise; not one that will probably ever get made given movie’s results. And, more importantly, Burnell couldn’t let go of the internal dialogue moments from his book. The script lingers over Lively’s past long after it was necessary anymore to establish motive and struggles. Basically, he shouldn’t have adapted his own book…and Morano should have been more brutal during the edit. Had the movie been about 20 minutes shorter, its pacing might have pulled it together better.

It isn’t that I don’t want depth in my action leads, but this movie kept repeating the same moments and footage. Those efforts added nothing that a brief moment on a good actor’s face wouldn’t have been able to convey. And Morano had good actors in the leads.

So the short answer to this movie is that it is good, but slow, entertainment. The path and results of the adventure are somewhat easy to get ahead of, thanks again to the pacing, but the resolution is satisfying. If you’re looking for another female led story with a woman who is, ultimately, in control, you could do worse. I just wish it had been a bit tighter to energize it more.

The Rhythm Section Poster

The Old Guard

[3.5 stars]

Oh, hell yeah. I know it’s a riff on Highlander, but it’s great to see a story that at least tries to think about implications and does it with a solid cast and director. Gina Prince-Bythewood (Secret Life of Bees, Love and Basketball) took Greg Rucka’s (Stumptown, Whiteout) adaptation of his own graphic novel and gave us a solid (potential) franchise launch. It also is a strong example of what a good “comic book” movie can be.

With Charlize Theron (Bombshell) in the star-power lead, we are introduced to a motley group of warriors and their stories. Matthias Schoenaerts(The Mustang), Marwan Kenzari (Aladdin), and Luca Marinelli (Trust) are the rest of her long-standing cadre. But the main focus is on KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk), the newcomer. Even with the solid ensemble work, it’s through Layne that we learn, as she does, about the Old Guard, their place in the world, and their perspective. Throw Chiwetel Ejiofor (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) into the mix and you’ve a powerhouse cast. Frankly, the only sour note in the movie is Harry Melling (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) who tries to give us a big bad to hate yet understand, but ends up picking furniture out of his teeth.

Still, the balance of amazing fights and discussion, as well as a wicked sense of humor, keep you engaged and wanting more. This has amazing potential to spin out stories, if the writing is maintained. Even with the obvious branch to the ending/beginning (as this is a sort of origin story) I exited the credits wanting to see the next tale to come. Netflix definitely made a great choice grabbing this one. And much like Extraction (and unlike 6 Underground), they’ve got bones to build on, if they can keep their casts and do it with a care to keeping the quality up.

The Old Guard Poster