Sunday, October 29, 2017

Thor: Ragnorak Review (2017)

Grade: C+

“Thor: Ragnorak” (the latest entry in the ever expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe) is at its most fun when the action takes place two or three realms away from the usual noise and CGI chaos that plagues the MCU. The middle chunk of the film (directed by New Zeland born up and comer Taika Waititi) takes place in a bizarre alien settlement known as Sakaar. There’s a massive junk pile wherein garbage from other realms are dumped via portal as well as a futuristic city with skyscrapers.

After a slightly tedious set up that prepares us for the predictable MCU movie “Thor: Ragnorak” is inevitably going to turn into, the God of thunder Thor (Chris Hemsworth) finds himself in a Sakaar. He’s hammerless, fatherless and in the captive hands of Grandmaster, (Jeff Goldblum being his usual Jeff Goldblum-y self) a kooky, deranged fellow with jelled grey hair, a blue soul patch and a gold bathrobe. Thor faces off in a gladiator style death match against his old friend and co Avenger The Incredible Hulk, aka Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) who has, since the last “Avengers” film, gone mad and become a Sakaarian gladiator legend. At one point, Sakaarian citizens dance in the street wearing Hulk costumes and blow green powder into the air. “Dear White People” actress Tessa Thompson also makes her superhero film debut as an alcoholic Valkyrie warrior that downs half gallons like water.

Like the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies, “Thor: Ragnorak” benefits from being gleefully weird and isolated from the rest of the MCU. Amidst the political intrigue involving Captain America and Tony Stark, it’s nice to be blasted off into a strange new world where Jeff Goldblum portrays a flamboyant weirdo tyrant that forcefully pits two Avengers against each other. In these scenes, the picture plays like a goofy, freewheeling spinoff adventure in the Marvel universe: “Thor’s Trip to the Outer Rim.” There aren’t any blatant attempts to set up future “Avenger” films or characters.

The movie also benefits from the hotheaded comedic chemistry of Thor and Hulk, an excellent comic duo you probably hadn’t considered before. “Thor: Ragnorak” goes full on comedy, which is for the best considering these films involve literal Nordic Gods and other mythical beings fighting one other. Waititi and screenwriters Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost keep the jokes coming at rapid-fire speed. Everyone is so casual and snarky about everything. Yet to the filmmakers’ credit, the humor never hinders the action or stalls the pace.

Unfortunately, it’s not long before Thor, Hulk, the Valkyrie and Thor’s mischievous brother Loki (oh yes, Loki’s back and Tom Hiddleson is back to play him) must team up and go back to Asgard to save the universe from a supervillian and her undead horde. That villain is Thor’s spiteful older sister Hela (Cate Blanchett, whose black eyeliner, armor and headdress gives her the appearance of a gothic deer) who wants to conquer Asgard and take over the rest of the universe.  Why do these movies always have to come back to the world being in danger? Why can’t Thor just be tired of doing Avenger stuff, go soul searching in the universe somewhere and end up as a gladiator slave? Why couldn’t the film be an offbeat, intergalactic, superhero riff on “Spartacus”? Why couldn’t there be a final confrontation between Thor and bizarro Jeff Goldblum? I wanted Waititi to stay in Sakaar and explore its eccentric texture and junk piles a little more. It’s far more exciting than the massive CGI battle that occupies the final third of this movie.

Aside from being rote, there’s no dramatic weight behind Hela’s threat to Asgard. Making a full on superhero comedy is great but you’re not going to also convince me that an entire race of people (the common folk of Asgard) is in any sort of real danger.  I imagine Waititi knows that and yet he still has to go through the bland motions out of professional obligation. The film goes from being silly and spontaneous to exhaustingly predictable. I felt like I could have got up and left the movie during this climax and not really missed anything. “Thor: Ragnorak” is a fun diversion until it has to turn into the same old superhero film.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Suburbicon Review (2017)

Grade: D+

“Suburbicon” is a frustrating jumble of good ideas that fail to coalesce into a satisfying whole. Directed by George Clooney (with a script by Joel and Ethan Coen, Clooney and Grant Heslov) the picture attempts  (and fails) to juggle two disparate stories: the first is a middling slice of dark comedic noir involving the dissolution of a family in 1950’s suburbia while the other is a potentially compelling social drama involving race and segregation that's given only a few of scenes to unfurl, rendering it hollow.

The crime story gets off to an abrupt start as Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) wakes his young son Nicky Lodge (Noah Jupe) in the middle of the night. The father leads his boy to the living room where his mom Rose (Julianne Moore) and aunt Nancy (also Moore) are waiting with two mean looking heavies who intend to rob their nice suburban house in the town of Suburbicon. The confrontation leads to tragedy and the Lodge family is left to mourn. However, there’s more to the story as Gardner may not be as innocent as he initially seems.

What we have here is a combination of “Double Indemnity” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” with a hearty shot of Coen Bros-esque black comedy, which admittedly sounds juicy. It’s a shame that the film always feels pressed for time. The mystery unravels so quickly that it increasingly loses potency and eventually fizzles out in an excessively violent last act. The film also takes an extremely dark, psychotic turn in its finale that doesn’t feel entirely earned because of how hectic and undercooked the rest of the plot is. Meanwhile the characters aren’t given a chance to develop. There’s a scene between Gardner and Nicky near the end that would be absolutely bone chilling if Gardner wasn’t such a bland, unmemorable protagonist. A poor mans Jerry Lundegaard from “Fargo.”

The crime story is never unwatchable; there are a handful of gleefully twisted moments and Oscar Isaac shows up briefly to steal the show but nothing sticks in your mind afterwards.

The other storyline in “Suburbicon” (happening simultaneously) is fraught with unrealized potential. It involves an African American family, The Meyers, moving into Suburbicon--a seemingly innocent event that throws the town’s white middle class residents into flux. They thought they were safe from the “dangers” of the city and integration here. It becomes immediately clear that this drama would make for a fresher, more urgent examination of the dark underbelly of suburbia than the second rate Coen Bros. crime film going on around it. All it takes is a black family moving in for white suburbanites to drop their cheerful façade and turn into racist, paranoid monsters. The scenes where the neighborhood succumbs to mob violence are tense and unsettlingly relevant.

Unfortunately, the Coen Bros. crime film takes center stage while this social drama plays out like a painfully shallow, heavy handed aside that could have easily been axed from the final cut. Its so one note and inert that I don’t think you can even call it a “subplot.” It’s a germ of a subplot that’s been dropped into the middle of different movie. The Meyers family, made up of a husband and wife and young boy are cardboard cutouts. Not once does Clooney venture into their house and give us a glimpse into their personal lives and show how they’re reacting to what’s going on around them.

The larger issue here is that Clooney fails to establish a substantial connection between these two storylines. Nicky and the Meyers boy play together a few times and bond while racist adults yell from the streets but these scenes don’t really go anywhere nor do they fit in with the rest of the movie. You feel like you’re watching two different movies. Yet even if “Suburbicon” had been longer and the social drama had been fleshed out more I’m still not sure the two stories would be compatible. They don’t brush up against each other nearly enough, narratively or thematically.

“Suburbicon” basically just puts two underwritten and unrelated narratives on top of each other in the hope that they’ll somehow fit together. On their own, said narratives might have made for good films (the racial drama in particular) but together they make for an underwhelming, disappointing mess.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Happy Death Day Review (2017)

Grade: C

Going in I expected Christopher Landon’s “Happy Death Day” to be very silly.  It is, after all, a mixture of teen slasher horror and the Harold Ramis comedy “Groundhog Day.” On that front it certainly met my expectations. However, it wasn’t until about ten minutes into “Happy Death Day” that I realized the “Groundhog Day” gimmick (the hero has to relive the same day over and over) is better suited to the horror genre than I originally thought, in a non-silly way.

Before I expand on this point lets get the plot out of the way.  College student Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) wakes up on her birthday with a miserable hangover, in the dorm of an awkward college freshman Carter (Israel Broussard). After a cold interaction, she walks back across the university campus to her sorority, where she runs into the snotty Danielle (Rachel Matthews) and her quiet roommate Lori (Ruby Modine). Later that night, as she walks to an on campus party she is violently murdered by a masked maniac wearing a creepy baby facemask (the school’s mascot). She wakes up in Carter’s bed again and…well, you know.

The idea of having to relive the day of your violent murder again and again is legitimately terrifying. It’s like having the same nightmare over and over again with no “wake up” period. When you wake up, you're back in it.  And no matter what you try and do, your stuck in this horrifying loop, unable to avoid your grim fate. Hell, just typing out that sentence made me a little anxious. There is potential here for a good, serious horror movie, which we catch brief glimpses of early on in “Happy Death Day,” as when Tree (on her third ‘death day’) decides to skip the party and barricade herself in her room.

Yet, as I alluded to in the opening paragraph, “Happy Death Day” goes the silly route. Landon’s film is a remake of “Groundhog Day;” there are similar plot points and Tree’s character arc mirrors Bill Murray’s. At the same time, it’s a goofier, more self-aware version of “I Know What You Did Last Summer” and other horror films of that ilk.

As a young adult, college set “Groundhog Day,” “Death Day” is surprisingly solid, if a little predictable. Rothe gives a snarky, lovable performance and Scott Lobdell’s screenplay actually takes the character seriously--treating Tree’s transformation from cold and self-absorbed to warm and considerate with earnestness and humor. Broussard is good as the nice guy/romantic interest and Matthews is delectable as the snotty ‘mean girl.” The only glaring issue is the treatment of Tree’s troubled relationship with her mom and dad. Were this solely a “Groundhog Day” remake and not also a horror movie, the filmmakers might have been able to better develop the relationship but as it stands now the material is contrived.

As a horror-comedy, “Death Day” isn’t so successful. There’s fun to be had but by and large the humor is more miss than hit. And the film itself eventually goes off the rails, not in a fun way but in a grating, obnoxious one. I winced when Tree started delivering cheesy quips and strained one-liners. Meanwhile, the horror elements are mostly half-baked and uninspiring. While Tree’s initial interactions with the mysterious killer are tense, subsequent meetings are annoyingly disorienting and poorly shot. The inclusion of an escaped murderer late in the second act is a trite Red Haring and the final twist (wherein we discover the true identity of the murderer) is convoluted and underwhelming.

In the end, there are two potentially good movie concepts in “Happy Death Day:” a serious horror film that uses the “Groundhog Day” gimmick as a jumping off point as well as a young adult, female led “Groundhog Day” (with touches of “Mean Girls” and “Clueless” style social satire) remake. Unfortunately, the product being released this weekend is a mildly fun but thoroughly mediocre combination of said concepts.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Foreigner Review (2017)

Grade: B

With “The Foreigner, “ actor/director/stuntman/Martial arts icon Jackie Chan joins the cinematic ranks of Liam Neeson, Terence Stamp, Michael Caine and others by playing an aging man forced to carry out sweet vengeance and inflict punishing violence. It’s another entry in the Geriatric action/crime sub genre.  “The Foreigner” is Chan’s “Taken,” or “The Limey,” and the picture (helmed by “Casino Royal” director Martin Campbell, his first feature film in six years) is a brutal, giddy old school revenge flick.

Things get off to a quick start. Chan plays Quan, an immigrant currently residing in London who watches his daughter Fan (Katie Leung) get killed in a bombing. We learn very quickly that Quan’s past is steeped in devastating tragedy and hardship. Chan spends most of his early scenes paralyzed and shriveled up, resembling a corpse freshly delivered to the morgue. However, Quan’s depression is short lived, as his decision to track down the terrorists responsible and get his own justice seems to reinvigorate him. With an all-consuming rage, Quan loads up a nondescript green van with weapons and supplies (to make even more weapons) and gets to work, channeling his grief into nasty but oh so glorious violence.

It’s an absolute joy to watch Quan creatively torment and stalk his targets with the upmost confidence. Here’s a chap who, after setting off a non lethal improvised explosive in a government building, immediately calls up his target telling them he means business. Chan has a history of playing clownish action heroes but here he’s locked in, relentless and dominant. He’s the seasoned professional who has command of every situation he’s in and the drop on every person he comes into contact with. The scene where Quan goes all John Rambo on a group of heavies (who’ve foolishly underestimated his skills) in a patch of forest is exhilarating and cringe inducing. Lets just say one of those heavies may need a tetanus shot.

The action in “The Foreigner” is non flashy and appropriately brutal. We feel every punch, gunshot and body hit with a wooden plank. Quan accumulates bruises and nasty cuts and occasionally can be seen limping away after a scuffle. He throws himself through windows and down staircases. Campbell infuses the action with a human dimension. Quan is an old man who isn’t immune to injury but he can still dismantle his targets with ease. He takes physical punishment with scrappiness and gracefulness. As a visceral, popcorn revenge flick “The Foreigner” is immensely satisfying.

But there’s more to this story. “The Foreigner” is also a twisty, politically tinged procedural. The bombing is politically motivated and Quan’s primary target is Liam, (Pierce Brosnan) an Irishman who works for the British government and may or may not have connections to the perpetrators. It’s an intriguing narrative that adds some complexity and moral grey area to the people Quan is pursuing without tainting our satisfaction in seeing him carry out his revenge to completion. That being said, the procedural plot can be uneven. It’s not necessarily convoluted but the execution can be downright dopey and even sloppy--especially when double crossings start happening near the end of the second act.

Brosan’s performance doesn't always hold together; some of his major dramatic scenes fall flat and I found his sing songy Irish accent to be distracting. Though he does have his moments, particularly when he’s forced to inflict physical torment of his own. Ultimately, Liam and Quan make for compelling rivals, in regards to their relationship to violence. Both men have a violent past but Liam wants to leave that life behind while Quan embraces it head on. Liam desperately wants to avoid violent confrontations and preserve his cushy life in politics while a lifetime of tragedy has left Quan with nothing but a vehement rage needing to be quenched.

There are other issues; the screenplay by David Marconi (Based on the novel “The Chinaman” by Stephen Leather) can be heavy handed when it comes to the politics surrounding the attack and Quan’s tragic backstory. Furthermore, the dialogue can be flat out terrible at times resulting in unintentional humor. But “The Foreigner” is still a fun melding of political procedural and straightforward, down and dirty revenge, further bolstered by Chan’s ferocious, determined energy. He’s been sorely missed in western cinema these past few years.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Blade Runner 2049 Review (2017)

Ridley Scott’s hypnotic futuristic thriller “Blade Runner” builds to an incredibly poignant and surprising moment of empathy. Up until then, the Replicants (artificial bio engineered androids meant to resemble humans and perform slave labor) are painted as the antagonists. After a series of violent rebellions, Replicant production is outlawed and any remaining Replicants are to be hunted down and killed by cops known as Blade Runners. But during the picture’s climax, atop a decrepit apartment building in dystopian Los Angeles, Scott flips the script. We come to see the Replicants not as robots gone awry but as naïve and tragically misunderstood beings that weren’t given a fair shake.

From this perspective, Replicants aren’t just machines created to be our servants but subjective beings with agency. Beings that are capable of feeling love and compassion. Beings that can express free will and have their own goals and individual aspirations. We come to empathize with them just as we would a human trapped in an oppressive situation. In fact, we care more about them than most of the human characters. In the film, humans are mostly cold and wasteful beings who caused the planet to fall into a state of dystopian chaos. They designed the Replicants to resemble themselves but outlawed them the minute they began acting too human. This earth shattering, emotionally touching shift in perspective and audience sympathy resonates throughout the sequel “Blade Runner 2049.”

Directed by Denis Villenueve and scripted by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, “Blade Runner 2049” expands upon the original film’s interests in the shaky ethical dimensions surrounding A.I. creation/use, oppression, agency and empathy. And it manages to take these themes in a fresh direction thick with theological allusions and thought provoking philosophical questions. Among other things, the picture explores the nuances of artifice. In this decaying, desolate future wherein synthetic organisms outnumber organic ones the film asks us to question traditional notions of what’s authentic and “real.” Can one machine be more human than another? Can a relationship between two man made machines be just as authentic as a relationship between two humans?

“Blade Runner 2049” weaves together a complex mystery, at the center of which lies a massive conspiracy that threatens to dismantle the remnants of societal order. The narrative revolves around K, (Ryan Gosling) a Blade Runner as he embarks on his latest case. As K unravels said conspiracy, he begins to experience an identity crisis-- his identity and personal sense of reality is jarringly called into question. The film is intense and unpredictable. At multiple points during my viewing I thought I had figured out the mystery and every time Villenueve proved me wrong. At the same time “Blade Runner 2049” is deceptively dense. It’s a heavy philosophical drama wrapped in sleek, visually lush neo noir that requires your undivided attention. Important clues are scattered throughout every scene. Blink and you might miss something.

The picture moves at a glaciers pace. Villeneuve elegantly eases us back into gloomy, dread filled world of “Blade Runner” and proceeds to bask in every moment--every staggering shot of dreary overcrowded L.A., the vast junkyards or the desolate ruins of once grand metropolises. In his films (“Sicario,” “Arrival” to name a couple) Villenueve has never felt the need to rush through his stories and here he lets us soak up “Blade Runner’s” haunting, enigma rich atmosphere for (almost) three drawn out hours. Like its predecessor, “2049” has an overwhelming sense of place; its dystopian sets feel lived in and three-dimensional.  There’s a lot of ground to cover but Villeneuve takes his time the narrative never feels hurried or convoluted and K is given ample time to develop into a multidimensional character full of anxieties and burning questions.

I wish this review could be a little more specific but the studio has asked all members of the press to avoid any potential spoilers. As a writer and a critic it’s a little frustrating but at the same time a lot happens here. So, I’ll just leave it at this for now: “Blade Runner 2049” is a beautiful and challenging film that leads to a deeply touching and ambivalent conclusion.