American Made

AMDirector: Doug Liman

Screenwriter: Gary Spinelli

Cast: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright, and Jesse Plemons

I had an idea once for a movie where I’d pluck out a completely inconsequential character from a well-known film, and then base an entire story around that character. What I love most about this idea is that the film I write would stand firmly on its own two feet with no overt mention to the protagonist’s connection to the larger, famous work. Only those who pick up the subtle clues would ever even be able to connect them.

I had a similar experience watching American Made. I’ll admit that I am not up to date on my drug cartel history, but I do watch and love the Netflix series, Narcos. So as I’m sitting, watching, and enjoying Tom Cruise’s new film American Made, I suddenly start thinking, “I know the name Barry Seal. Wasn’t he in an episode of Narcos?” And then two things happened: 1. I felt what it would be like to have that revelation of realizing a frivolous character from one story is now the subject of another, and 2. I realized I knew everything that was going to happen in this movie. I loved realizing the first thing, but I was not as excited about realizing the second one.

The good news is I love Tom Cruise, and he made up for all the predictability that followed. So it turns out, yes, this is the story of Barry Seal – they guy from Season 1, Episode 4 of Narcos. Seal, played by Tom Cruise is a TWA pilot, who as America is in the grips of the Cold War during the 1970s catches the attention of a CIA agent, Monty Schafer (Domhnhall Gleeson). Seal has been smuggling Cuban cigar exiles into the states as a means of additional income, and Schafer sees Seal’s activity not so much as punishable but as exploitative. Schafer offers Seal a chance to work secretly for the government, taking reconnaissance photos of South American guerilla camps and delivering bribes to Nicaraguan and Panamanian politicians and military personnel for information.

Of course, the CIA doesn’t pay much, and Barry wants nothing more than to make a great life for his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) and kids. That being said, it doesn’t take long for the Columbian drug cartel headed by Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda), Carlos Ledher (Fredy Yate Escobar), and an up-and-coming-kid Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejía) to take notice of an American spy plane running in and out of South America on a pretty regular basis. The cartel sees Seal’s activity not so much as punishable but as exploitative…rinse, wash, repeat (see what I did there?).

The movie spends the rest of its focus watching Seal bounce back and forth between running drugs for the cartel and informing on “Commies” for the CIA. Meanwhile Seal just keeps getting richer, and richer and richer.

Still, the movie doesn’t jive like I wanted it to. I think director Doug Liman and screenwriter, Gary Spinelli bet on the fact that most people who see this film wouldn’t have seen episode 4 of Narcos. I also think they knew Tom Cruise in a plane is something people enjoy. Additionally, this marks the second collaboration between Liman and Cruise after 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, or was it called Live Die Repeat? No one knows for sure. Anyway, that was a great movie and Liman directed the hell out of it, a film which was basically Groundhog Day meets Terminator and has Cruise reporting to Brenden Gleeson. So why couldn’t Doug Liman direct the hell out of a movie that is basically The Wolf of Wall Street meets Top Gun where Cruise is reporting to Dohmnall Gleeson? He can and he pretty much does. Liman gets a great performance out of Cruise, and a little birdy tells me there are at least two more Liman/Cruise joints in the works. This is good news.

What doesn’t quite jive for me in this film are the circumstances, a deficit that I think mostly falls on the writing. There is a lot of coincidence and shrugging off of impossible situations in American Made. At one moment Seal is in a Columbian prison as government agents are about to raid his New Orleans home with his family asleep inside. The next moment, Seal and his family are living in Arkansas and they own an airplane hanger. It’s not quite that sudden, but it’s pretty close. Gleeson’s Agent Schafer character is also oddly underdeveloped and while I understand his persona is supposed to be mysterious, he seems contradictory and far more dramatic than necessary. Lastly, Jesse Plemons is in this movie as a local sheriff, and I have to assume there is a cache of great footage of him on the cutting room floor somewhere because what’s left of his character is barely an arc.

All in all, Cruise continues to entertain and gives more than just an action-packed performance. In a fall season where all there is to see is It for the 10th time, this is a worthy film that has far more high points than low ones. B

American Made is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 55 minutes.

It (2017)

ItDirector: Andy Muschietti

Screenwriters: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman

Cast: Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, and Bill Skarsgård

Man, this is a strange movie. The movie is strange from the narrative perspective. The movie is strange from the psychological perspective. The movie is strange from the commentary perspective. The movie is strange from a meta perspective (starring one of the boys from Stranger Things, an obvious derivative of Stephen King’s novel It, of which this film is based). This movie is strange from the tone, to the look, to the mood, right down to the challenge of writing a review about It, that doesn’t confuse the title with the non-gender, singular English pronoun, “it,” when referencing It… at least not by accident.

Fans of It have already seen their beloved coming of age horror hit the screen once before, albeit the small screen. The 1990 mini-series based on King’s novel was very well received and has more or less stood the test of time, partially thanks to the ensemble cast that included John Ritter, Tim Curry, Harry Anderson, and Jonathan Brandis. That version’s pervasiveness in pop culture is likely the reason it took so long to get it on the big screen…that and the book’s 1,138 page length (King’s second longest novel next to The Stand).

It opens in the quiet little town of Derry, Maine with that same thrilling, iconic, and horrifying scene that opens the novel as well as the 1990 mini-series, only this time Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) and Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) live in the 1980s. The decision to shift the time period from the 1950s to the 1980s is a good one, as King meant for the childhood of these characters to be based on their adult lives being contemporary. I won’t spoil the events of the opening scene, but suffice it to say, the tension is ultra high and Bill Skarsgård’s first appearance as Pennywise the Dancing Clown does not disappoint.

Strange things are happening in Derry, Maine following the tragic events that unfold in the film’s opening scene. Summer is here, school is out, and kids are disappearing. A group of kids find themselves united by some strange visions they’ve all experienced, all of which include the presence of an evil clown figure. “The Loser’s Club,” as they’ve come to be known includes the aforementioned Bill, chubby intellectual Ben, (Jerry Ray Taylor), chatterbox Richie (Finn Wolfhard), asthmatic Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), neurotic Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), outcast Beverly (Sophia Lillis), and eventually the ultimate fish out of water, Mike (Chosen Jacobs) whose backstory is only hinted at in this film, but will most likely play a much larger role in the upcoming second chapter.

The Losers all have one goal: to find, stop and kill the strange clown-like being that haunts their lives, preys on their fears, and attacks the children of Derry. Well, that and to avoid the dreaded bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), who makes a strong case for being even more threatening than the shape-shifting, demonic, clown monster!

It is mostly a pretty impressive effort. The film oozes with the horror tropes expected with the genre, but also manages to successfully execute the careful tonal shifts that made the book so beloved and treasured for all of these years. The length was certainly a challenge to overcome, and thankfully, director Andy Muschietti and the film’s three screenwriters made the evolved decision to focus only the young protagonists’ story in this film (the novel bounces back and forth between two timelines separated by 27 years). This decision allows the narrative to breathe and not feel too jumbled and busy by trying to capture so many characters in so many different situations. This also all but guarantees a follow-up film that will tackle the story of the adult Losers Club (the $123 million opening weekend probably didn’t hurt the chances of a sequel either). As a matter of fact, the young stars of the film have already selected who they think should play them as adults, and if I may say so – these are some great choices! Still, the film is solid as a stand-alone story on its own.

Speaking of the kids, films like this can easily survive and thrive with one-dimensional performances from the child actors. However, this film decided to ignore that laziness and cast the most perfect and outstanding group of young actors I’ve seen on film in some time. Mostly unknowns, each of these kids found a way to be memorable, convincing, and most of all authentic to his or her character from the book, allowing the film maker to spend more time with these characters and develop them well. So instead of a 100 minute thrill-ride, we got a 135 minute opus that feels eventful, crafted, and most of all, fun!

Here I am rambling on, and I have not even gotten to Bill Skarsgård yet. “It” can’t be easy

Clowns
Some killer clowns (from clockwise): Skarsgård, Curry, Nicholson, and Ledger)

to step into the great Tim Curry’s oversized shoes (a pun I expect will be commonly found in reviews of this film) as Pennywise.  However, Skarsgård’s performance, while clearly inspired by Curry is very much his own. He succeeds in the same way that Heath Ledger succeeded in taking on the role of the Joker in The Dark Knight after Jack Nicholson played him in 1989’s Batman (we’ll leave the Jared Leto version out for now). It’s a grimier, dirtier, more macabre Pennywise. In fact, the 1989 Batman film is listed on the marquis of the Derry town cinema; perhaps a reference to this dual “clown” generational performance, or perhaps just a hint at Warner Brothers’ Justice League coming out this fall.

Are there flaws here? Sure. At the end of the day, this is another reboot; a term becoming all too common in the mainstream entertainment world. What’s that one thing that was popular just long ago enough to be slightly outdated, but also nostalgically relevant? Let’s remake it! I’m not saying It is not a film worth making, but when it comes to criticism and recommending whether you should go spend your money or not, originality matters. Still, this still manages to “float” above the standard fare for the horror genre, and wisely attempts to tap into not just the horror but the heart as well. B+

It is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Atomic Blonde

ABDirector: David Leitch

Screenwriter: Kurt Johnstad

Cast: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Toby Jones, Sofia Boutella, and Eddie Marsan

Maybe a movie like this could have flown before Netflix, before John Wick, or before Mission: Impossible, but not anymore. Atomic Blonde, based on Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s graphic novel series, The Coldest City, plays like a Cold War action movie, but it tries too hard to be anything else.

Set in 1989, at the peak of the Cold War, British agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is sent to investigate the death of a fellow agent in Berlin. Cue all the tropes you associate with this genre: mistaken identity, betrayal, secret list of undercover operatives, and so on and so forth. It even does the very thing this clip from The Other Guys is making fun of; it starts at the end, then goes to the beginning, periodically returning to the end, giving various characters’ perspectives. Ridiculous.

The other characters? Hardly worth mentioning, but Broughton is teamed up with another agent named David Percival (James McAvoy) who may or may not be up to something. She also encounters a rookie French agent named Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), who Broughton finds much more amusing than Percival.

Does it matter that this movie paints by numbers? It certainly doesn’t have to matter. Movies like Mission: Impossible and John Wick have very little going on upstairs, but what they do have is unrelenting spectacular action sequences! Atomic Blonde has one of those, and while it may be one of the best examples of an action spectacle in a long, long time, it doesn’t do enough to hold the other 90 minutes of the movie afloat.

Atomic Blonde the film wisely immerses us in the music of the times. The best part about Atomic Blonde is its selection and execution of the New Wave/Punk music of the time. Like Baby Driver, none of this music is original; the art is not in the music but rather the selections, arrangement, and placement. I have an even deeper appreciation of David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” now.

So what do we have here? Do we have the “female James Bond,” as some publicized this film to be? No. We have middle of the road espionage, set in a provocative time period with good music and one great action scene. That’s just enough to recommend it, but not without the caveat that it comes with a high risk of disappointment. C+

Atomic Blonde is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 55 minutes.

Wonder Woman (2017)

wwDirector: Patty Jenkins

Screenwriter: Allen Heinberg

Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, and David Thewlis

It was inevitable that some movie in the Detective Comics Extended Universe would eventually get it right. It wasn’t Man of Steel, it wasn’t Batman v. Superman, and it definitely wasn’t Suicide Squad. Did I think it would be Wonder Woman? No, but it was. Regardless, whatever it was, that particular film would be laden with praise far better than it deserves simply because it’s the film that stopped the DC bleeding. That’s the case with Wonder Woman. A fine film, but not to the degree that its being touted.

We open in modern day with an established Diana (Gal Gadot), working in her office at the Louvre, when she receives a curious brief case courtesy of Wayne Enterprises. Within is the original photo of the image Wayne (Ben Affleck) uncovered of Diana and a group of soldiers posing for a picture in war-torn Belgium mid World War II. With the photo, Wayne enclosed a note hoping to be able to sit down and hear the story that lead to this photo someday. Fortunately for us, that day is today, as the film flashes back to the War-era 1940s on a mysterious Mediterranean island populated with god-like Amazon women training as warriors.

The isolated island is hidden from all other people of Earth and is so protected that all inhabitants are unaware of the World War going on around them. Diana, now a child runs through the training areas, locking eyes with Antiope (Robin Wright), General to the warriors who seems to see some potential in young Diana that her sister, Diana’s mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) seems to be ignoring. While Hippolyta’s goal is to protect her daughter, the fact has not escaped Diana that she is the only child on the island and it is clear Hippolyta and Antiope know why, and it has something to do with the why their mysterious island remains hidden from the world of man. Diana, however sides with Hippolyta on the matter and eventually Antiope agrees to allow her sister to train Diana on the condition that she train her harder than any warier she’d ever trained previously.

The world of man does not stay hidden for long, however. Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) American CIA agent working for British intelligence posing as a Nazi crashes his plane and Diana, now grown, witnesses it and rushes to his rescue. What she doesn’t know is that Trevor is being pursued by the Germans and by rescuing Trevor, she leads the Germans right to her home. The ensuing battle between her Amazon warrior race and the pursuing Nazis introduces her to the conflict in the outside world, and with Trevor, she decides to leave home to fight a war to end all wars, discovering her full powers and true destiny.

There’s actually quite a bit to this movie, not in terms of complication, but in terms of its reach; think Captain America meets Thor meets Elf. In the end, Wonder Woman is more successful at what it represents than of what it actually is. As I mentioned in my opening, the first DC movie to strike a chord with audiences and critics will receive enhanced accolades. Wonder Woman represents a change in course. It is funny, heartfelt, romantic, and exciting. None of these adjectives can be used to describe the previous DCEU films. Furthermore, this disconnectedness in tone is further illustrated  by the film’s execution. This is a stand-alone film in every way. There are no pandering cameos or obvious Easter egg plot points to lessen the film’s impact. Wonder Woman strikes out to sink or swim on its own, and for the most part it swims just fine.

That’s not to say the film is not without its faults. There is a fairly forced thread involving the origin of Wonder Woman and her immortal Olympian ancestry, which paves the way for at least one too many villains for me. Villainy should have started and stopped with Elena Anaya’s haunting performance as Dr. “Poison” Maru. Furthermore, I have a little qualm with the film’s supposed message in combination with the history it presents, or shall I say decides not to present. I won’t say more, but it’s hard to ignore a certain historic event that does not play out in this film, which would certainly complicate its overall theme.

And then there’s the costume reveal, which came off kind of hokey, in my opinion. I costumeknow it’s a big deal, and I know it needs to happen in a big way, but as Diana trekked across “no man’s land” in her Stars and Stripes Amazon armor in slow motion, I was lost in in an female objectified patriotic feminist paradox! Later I would read that director Patty Jenkins did not change or reshoot a single scene for this film…except for this one. Which makes me wonder, what was it like before reshooting?

Still, this is an almost entirely satisfying, fresh, and enjoyable summer blockbuster.  The two main stars, Pine and Gadot, are terrific together, and finding Gadot for this role is an absolute miracle. She embodies the nearly 80 year history of the character brilliantly and will serve the character greatly in her various appearances in other DC films. Wonder Woman, while flawed, is a good time at the movies, which is all anyone is really hoping for in her next film as the Amazing Amazon, this fall’s Justice League, slated for November 17th. B+

Wonder Woman is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 21 minutes.

 

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

gogDirector: James Gunn

Screenwriter: James Gunn

Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Kurt Russell…Sylvester Stallone?

Well I feel both sorry and a little validated to report that on the topic of guardians who are of a said galaxy, I told you so. These films are bloated, overrated, and in the case of the second volume, boring.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, opens with our heroes banding together to protect the galaxy from some massive, disgusting, toothy intergalactic creature. It’s a battle. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) strikes first and is quickly thwarted, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is next, but her speed is no match. Rocket fires his blaster at will, but his blasts don’t penetrate the creature’s skin. Drax (Dave Bautista) determines, he will attack the creature from within and leaps down its throat. What follows is difficult to decipher. Not because of confusing filmmaking, but because the focus shifts to Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) dancing and narrowly avoiding blasts, shrapnel, and slimy tentacles whilst dancing to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” All of the fighting remains blurry background action. This is a funny, clever scene. This also marks the high-water mark of the film, and it’s downhill from here.

Spoiler alert (not really), the mighty foe is vanquished, and the guardians bask in the glory of victory, accepting possession of Gamora’s sister, Nebula (Karen Killan) as reward from a group of golden skinned beings known as the Sovereign race. That is until Rocket pockets a few valuable batteries from the Sovereigns, causing them to pursue the guardians in an epic space chase culminating in the fortuitous arrival of Quill’s father, Ego (Kurt Russell).

This sets the table for Volume 2 where Quill is forced to face and reconcile the deep-rooted feelings about his father’s seeming abandonment of him and his mother. There is much to discuss about Ego, but it would tread into spoiler territory, so I’ll simply say that Ego’s name is not misplaced.

As I mentioned in the opening of this review, this film does not improve on its already humdrum predecessor.  Like all the worst sequels, the filmmakers looked at what made the first film successful and just poured more of that on, with no regard for congruity. This time the soundtrack is no longer accompanying the film. In the first film, the soundtrack was a device to set a tone for the film. This time, it’s forcefully shoved into our face and ears to the point that the damn songs are actually plot devices. In one scene, Kurt Russell takes the time to give us a Master class on the lyrics of Looking Glass’s “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl).” Also, Gunn and company crowbar the romantic subplot in there in such a haphazard way, I almost thought it was an attempt at being Meta. Quill refers to the romantic tension between Gamora and himself as an “unspoken thing,” so I thought perhaps this self-reference to a “will they or won’t they?” thing might go somewhere interesting. Instead, it simply becomes demonstrative of the same thing that a Meta version would condemn. This is not satire. This is not irony. This is just soap opera scriptwriting.

My only concern before seeing this movie was Baby Groot. I was worried about the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Teaser
James Gunn (screen grab) CR: Marvelproblematic nature of this “cutesy”, silly, obvious merchandising stunt, but Baby Groot ended up being the strongest quality of the film in the same way that “Adult Groot” was the heart and strength of the first film.  Additionally, as with all Marvel movies, Dr. Strange included, there are other elements of this film that do work. The world is expanded with this film to include some new characters including Mantis (Pom Klementieff), the aforementioned Ego, and a bazaar turn from Sylvester Stallone as Ravager leader Stakar Ogord. These characters are introduced and developed to various degrees in effective ways. Michael Rooker also returns as Yondu to positive effect, and I do get a kick out of Bautista’s dry, honest portrayal of Drax.

Still this is a dimmer, starker Guardians film. Humor is downplayed, and Volume 2 comes off angrier than the first one. I am looking forward to these characters’ appearances in the Avengers: Infinity Wars films, as I think they will benefit from less screen time. Still, Volume 3 is already green lit and slated to be released in 2020 kicking off phase 4 of the MCU, so apparently my opinion of the greatness of this franchise is off the mark. C+

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 16 minutes. There are also several stinger scenes sprinkled throughout the credits and one after the credits as well.

Get Out

GetDirector: Jordan Peele

Screenwriter: Jordan Peele

Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener, and Stephen Root

I know the fervor and ballyhoo over Get Out has all but passed, but in accordance with the lessons the film teaches, sometimes it’s good to be late to the party. Get Out is one of the stand out stories of cinema this year. With a budget of around $4 million and written/directed by comedian and first-time film-maker Jordan Peele, Get Out is one of the most profitable films of the year!

You may be more familiar with Jordan Peele as one-half of the comedy duo Key & Peele, which is precisely what makes it so delightfully unexpected that his comfort with writing, direction, and horror would be so spot on! Still when one examines the tone, subversive content, and perspective that Key & Peele took on society in their skits, one shouldn’t be too surprised that Get Out was rattling around in there somewhere.

Inspired by midnight horror titles like Night of the Living Dead and The Stepford Wives, Get Out is the story of Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a young Black budding photographer invited by his White girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) to meet the parents. It’s a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner for the modern day, in that Rose has neglected to mention to her parents that Chris is Black, and this makes Chris slightly uncomfortable. Rose’s family is quite affluent and given Chris’s experience in such matters, he finds reason to believe they may not take an immediate liking to their inter-racial relationship. Rose’s progressive attitude clams his nerves, however, and off they go to her parents’ Southern (of course) estate.

At first Rose’s parents Missy (Catherine Keener) and Dean (Bradley Whitford) are rather disarming, but soon Chris begins to have a funny feeling about the way people are acting on the estate. To say more could be getting into spoiler territory, but we can talk in generalities and non-specifics. On the surface we have a very traditional mystery horror film, but beneath the surface we have a far more palatable commentary thanks to an allegorical wave of symbolism driving our interpretations. This is a film to be both watched and observed. Passing references, recurring motifs, wardrobe and costumes, even the way a certain person eats a certain cereal is all relevant to truly understanding what Jordan Peele is trying to do here.

The metaphorical level is Get Out’s most successful level, and that takes it pretty far. This is likely the reason for its immaculate reception by audiences and critics alike. It is also groundbreaking in that it is the first $100 million film by a Black writer. However, objectively as a film it is an homage to a genre with clever use of convention. It is not a groundbreaking film, and it is not necessarily even the best horror film I’ve seen in the past year, but it’s a good movie, and there’s little to quibble about. You may not be that surprised by the twist or really much of the action in the film. Like I said, the majesty and success of this movie rests in the details. That being said, it’s even worth a re-watch to notice Peele’s intricate touches. Everything’s a clue from the car in the opening scene to the music in the closing credits. Manage your expectations, but this is above average fare with flares of brilliance here and there. Peele has a bright future as a film maker, no doubt about that! B

Get Out is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 44 minutes.

Logan

LoganDirector: James Mangold

Screenwriters: James Mangold, Scott Frank, and Michael Green

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Boyd Holbrook, and Stephen Merchant

Seventeen years, appearances in nine separate X-Men related films (credited/uncredited), and about 27 different timelines – Hugh Jackman is finally hanging up his claws. Citing fatigue, age, and skin cancer as factors, Jackman has made it clear Logan will be his final film as the iconic Wolverine. But don’t worry, Wolverine will not go GENTLE into that good night.

We open in the year 2029, and time has not been kind to Logan. A glorified, Uber driver, Logan (Jackman) is a limo driver for hire scraping together cash in order to buy a boat where he and an ailing Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) can live out their days isolated, yet out of harm’s way. Logan also has some health concerns of his own. His healing abilities are nothing like they used to be, which was the only thing protecting him from adamantium poisoning; he’s also a little too friendly with the bottle.

Mutants are all but extinct at this point, none having been born in over 25 years. Also, a catastrophe has basically wiped out the X-Men altogether. This event is but glossed over, but it clearly has to do with a seizure condition affecting Xavier. His mind being the most powerful the world has ever seen, as it deteriorates, the fallout can be alarming. In order to keep him safe, undetected and from doing harm, Logan, with the assistance of a mutant tracker named Caliban (Stephen Merchant), keeps Xavier medicated and contained in a large, empty water tank. This temporary measure is mostly effective, but as Xavier’s seizures get worse, it becomes clear Logan needs to speed up his plan. Things are complicated, however, with the arrival of a young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen), who possesses the same mutant ability as Logan and is being pursued by a powerful corporation, Transigen. If one were to connect the dots, it would imply that the DNA William Stryker used to “create” Wolverine has been stolen and repurposed by Transigen, which it has. More specifically, a mad scientist type by the name of Dr. Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant) is using the stolen mutant DNA to design, grow, and patent a militant mutant force who are now child aged, Laura being one.

Laura hopes to escape Transigen’s clutches by finding a safe haven called Eden across the Canadian border North of North Dakota, and she needs Logan’s help. Logan wants no part, but thankfully Professor Xavier sees Laura as someone who can begin to repair the damage that has annihilated his gifted youngsters. She can be the start of something new and someone who can teach Logan to love again.

What follows is your basic cat and mouse chase with Logan shepherding Professor Xavier and Laura while being pursued by an army of sinister figures, mutant and human alike.

The action is relentless, and now would probably be a good time to address the R rating. This is one brutal film both visually and emotionally. The violence is also off the charts. Director James Mangold always planned to make this film a darker, heavier Wolverine film, even before the success of Deadpool last year. The source material for the storylines came from some of the bleaker, more recent Wolverine graphic novels, including Old Man Logan (2008). This is truly a departure and another progression for the Marvel universe. While still under the 20th Century Fox studio and not officially a Marvel Production, Logan gets to be something different without too much disruption to other properties. With Logan, continuity is an afterthought, we have a more personal film, there is limited CGI, we get to spend time considering the value of aging heroes, and most of all the case is made that superheroes are not just for kids.

There’s a scene in Logan where Professor X and Laura are watching the movie Shane in a hotel room just as Alan Ladd says, “A man has to be what he is, Joey. Can’t break the mould. I tried it and it didn’t work for me.” There’s no finer epitaph for this movie or superior way to express it. Referencing a 1953 western to make your point is cinematic gold and a far more mature approach than in most “superhero” fare. I don’t think we are far from seeing the evolution of the superhero genre substantiating itself into cinematic art of the finest regard. Logan may not quite be that film, but it will likely be cited as the influence for that film. It’s important to take this film for what it is, and that is a character-driven action film. Logan does fine work with that, and while Logan may be Shane, Logan is not Shane. Still, this is certainly the finest of the Wolverine films, and its limited cast and mature perspective make it one of the most important comic book films yet. Furthermore, Jackman is outstanding as the tortured hero once again. This is the role he was born to play, and that is likely why he took it so seriously every time he played it. Unfortunately, nearly every role Jackman takes, he seems born to play, so it is fitting that he, like his character, is ready to move on to what’s next. A-

Logan is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 17 minutes. There is no after-credit scene with this film, but there is a humorous Deadpool 2 teaser before the film, so get there early.

John Wick: Chapter 2

jw2Director: Chad Stahelski

Screenwriter: Derek Kolstad

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Ian McShane, Riccardo Scamarcio, Common, and Laurence Fishburne

So the fact that there’s a John Wick 2 is like a surprise Christmas gift for me. I watched the original John Wick in 2014 in the same way one would watch say, any Jean Claude Van Damme movie; which is to say, with limited expectations. I was surprised, as many others were, with the craft, choreography, and cleverness that went into it and I was content with that. However, I never expected a second “chapter,” nor did I expect it to be the best movie of 2017 so far!

John Wick: Chapter 2 is a true sequel. It moves the plot forward, it introduces new characters, it broadens the world from the original, and it ups the body count…like way ups the body count. We start right where you want to start, if you recall the conclusion of the previous film, with John (Keanu Reeves) getting his car back. Still wanting, “out,” John reburies his recently resurrected hitman persona along with his small armory of tactical weaponry. He gets a new dog and is ready to return to retirement. That is until an unwelcomed caller, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) arrives at Chez Wick with a request to hire him for a job. Of course, Wick refuses, but it turns out D’Antonio has a curious little item known in the underground hitman community as a marker. This marker was given to D’Antonio by Wick in exchange for assistance in his “impossible task” that earned him his previous retirement, and the holder has the right to demand anything from whoever granted the marker with no risk of refusal. But Wick refuses. And D’Antonio blows up his house. Thems the breaks in the hitman world.

Wick reluctantly decides to revisit D’Antonio’s request, which is a big one – go to Rome, and kill Santino’s sister Gianna to make room for him at the “table,” which is to say, the global underground hitman governing body. When things go afoul, Wick discovers a price has been put on his head, and Wick now must now search for redemption while thousands of the world’s greatest hidden assassins are around every turn looking to take him out.

What follows is a garishly fun and sadistic ride through a more realized hitman underworld. We get a deeper glimpse at the rules, regulations, and inner-workings of the ancient society. We also have almost no down time in this movie. It is action packed and fast-paced at every turn. The fighting choreography is outstanding, and even though there are numerous long-play fight scenes, none of them seem stale, each of them have tangible stakes attached to them, and they all have a creative twist that makes them unique. Take the worst action sequel in the last 5 years, A Good Day to Die Hard, and notice how spending the time to make the action work, makes the movie work! Wick’s scenes with friend turned nemesis, Cassian (Common) are especially enjoyable.

Of course with action as revved up as this, character development is the biggest casualty. There is no time for exploration of previously developed characters like Aurelio (John Leguizamo) and Jimmy (Thomas Sadoski), who make glorified cameos in this film. We get a little more of Winston (Ian McShane), but otherwise we are making way for newbies, most notably the reteaming of Reeves with fellow Matrix-er, Laurence Fishburne, who plays the local underworld Kingpin of the New York area, and who has also had some past run-ins with Wick in the old days. Also, the ancient Greek/Roman thematic motif furthered by characters named Ares, Charon, Winston, and Cassian is not lost on me, but it is a little silly.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is the blueprint for action sequels. It ups the action, and it ups the game, but it stays true to what made the original succeed. I daresay this film accomplishes its own “impossible task” of outshining its original. I am excited to see stunt coordinator turned director Chad Stahelski continue his work with creator and screenwriter, Derek Kolstad in future chapters because this teaming was flawless. I have heard rumblings of a prequel John Wick TV series, which would showcase Wick’s impossible task, and while this excites me, it also worries me. However, in this day of mixed media and the entertainment models followed by the Marvel universe, there is certainly potential for this world to continue to expand and dominate in multiple mediums! A-

John Wick is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 2 minutes.

Hidden Figures

hfDirector: Theodore Melfi

Screenwriters: Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi

Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kirsten Dunst, and Kevin Costner

No matter how you felt about 2016, I think most of us could use a little pick-me-up in 2017. Well, enter Hidden Figures to provide a brief respite with a little chicken soup for the soul right when we desperately need it.

Hidden Figures is the true story about a group of African American women employed by NASA who were instrumental in the success of the now iconic and historic space missions of the 1960s. Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine Johnson, who along with her two friends Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), work as human computers for NASA, doing calculations that the engineers need worked or verified. This proves to be a skilled yet monotonous task, and all the while the women working as Computers look on as the first International Business Machine (IBM) is being assembled across campus, threatening to render their roles obsolete.

An academic prodigy, Johnson’s prowess for Geometry gets her promoted to personal Computer for Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), director of Guidance and Control, the branch responsible for calculating the trajectory for NASA’s first manned space launches. This sounds all well and good, but Harrison is not the warm, fuzzy type, and a room full of egotistical White, male engineers in the Jim Crow South does not exactly translate to a respectable work environment. The movie unfolds henceforth as tensions rise over the space race between America and Russia. Johnson must grapple with the hostilities of being a Black woman in a White man’s world while Jackson and Vaughan adapt to a changing world where computers are machines, not people.

There is a lot going on in this movie; far too much to summarize in a simple movie review. Each of the heroines’ stories is compelling and outstanding in its own special way. Writer/Director Theodore Melfi is wise to begin the film where he does and allow each of these characters to forge her own path in the face of societal and cultural stifling. While many of the tropes of traditional period biography are present, it’s the ones that don’t get played that make all of the difference. Several times, I set myself up for the inevitable and predictable harassment scene or cartoonish bigotry, and each time I was pleasantly surprised when it didn’t happen. Hidden Figures does not go for the cheap jab at your sensibilities, and instead takes the high road exposing the institutional racism of the time, not just the blatant form. We’ve seen many films depicting the shame and cruelty of “separate but equal,” but not as many that also reveal its inconvenience or question its complacency.

Furthermore, we have fantastic performances all around, of course from our leading ladies, but also from Costner and supporting players like Mahershala Ali, Kirsten Dunst, and Jim Parsons. Movies like this do come around every year, but Hidden Figures feels uniquely appropriate for right now. Additionally, the film aptly depicts the great John Glenn whom we lost last year and who deserves to be lionized as part of this story as well. Melfi is fast becoming a go-to writer and director when it comes to creating emotional and satisfying films. His previous film, St. Vincent was equally crafted, and Hidden Figures furthers his budding trademark theme of exploring the unconventional (and sometimes “hidden”) goodness in the world.

Hidden Figures is not groundbreaking or particularly edgy. What it is, is a spectacular, and relatively unknown story of progress and perseverance, without feeling cheap or going to the same old well. It feels fresh and inspirational, and while not especially deep, it does make for a good time at the movies. A-

The People’s Critic’s Top 10 Films of 2016

Interior of a Movie TheaterWell, movies came out this year, but I think we can all agree that we are looking at a rather bleak field of films this year. It’s not, “2011, The Artist wins Best Picture bad,” but it’s close. And here we are again: Less than a month before the Academy of Motion Pictures releases its list of nominees, less than a week before the Hollywood Foreign Press hands out the Golden Globes, and of the likely list of top films to be nominated for Oscars this year, only five have opened wide enough to see in a suburban city of a Midwestern state. It’s the election all over again!

Last year, films like Sicario, Creed, The Martian, Bridge of Spies, and the eventual Best Picture winner, Spotlight all opened wide well before the end of December. That’s not to say that Sully, Hacksaw Ridge, Manchester by the Sea, La La Land, and Arrival didn’t try to play fair and open wide already; they did. But other potential frontrunners  Moonlight, Silence, Hidden Figures, and Fences are all playing on this double standard of releasing a film in minimal markets so it can qualify for Oscar eligibility only to open wide on some obsequious and noncompetitive weekend after the new year.  This is still an improvement over the 2014 awards season, where basically nothing but The Grand Budapest Hotel really opened wide, but it is a step down from the host of great films released wide during the calendar year in 2015. And let’s be honest, competition for theatrically released films has never been greater. With Netflix, Amazon, HBO, and other streaming sites moving into original cinema, film studios should begin cooperating, making theatrically released films easy to see, and make going to the theater special, but not exclusive!

Oscar nominations will be announced Tuesday, January 24th, bright and early, and after a two years of directorial domination by Alejandro González Iñárritu and three years of Cinematography superiority by Emmanuel Lubezki, it seems these two have left the field wide open for someone else to step up and win something.  Anyway, Oscar nominations are a coveted announcement, but a far more important announcement is being made right now – my list of the top 10 films of 2016.  While no Top Ten List can ever satisfy everyone, great care has been taken to analyze each film on my own particular set of criteria ensuring reliability!  So without further ado, I present The People’s Critic’s Top 10 films (that I was actually able to see) of 2016.

 

eye10. Eye in the Sky 

This film gets more and more fascinating the more I think about it. In the new millennium, we have seen drastic changes to what we consider “warfare,” and Eye in the Sky captures the intensity and complexity of an ever changing definition of modern warfare. Helen Mirren plays Captain Katherine Powell in command of an operation to potentially eliminate some of the world’s most wanted terrorists, who have holed themselves up in a small house in Kenya. When the risks of capturing them become too great, Powell gives the command for a hellfire missile attack via military drone. What complicates things is that a young girl selling bread sets up her storefront directly in the kill zone of the missile’s target, raising one of the many philosophical questions in this film, the first of which is whether there is an obligation to eliminate a potential threat to many lives by inadvertently killing an innocent. I promise you, this film makes you feel the full gravity of every decision that is made, which makes it one of the most intense movies of the year. This film also includes the great Alan Rickman in one of his final performances.

beasts9. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Speaking of Alan Rickman, Snape may be gone, but Rickman would likely be comforted to know that the world is not done with Potter and company just yet. J.K. Rowling does the near impossible by picking up her magic wand again and creating something moving, amazing, and magical yet again in her first effort as screenwriter with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Everyone who fell in love with the eight Harry Potter films will be delighted by this expansion of the wizarding world. Eddie Redmayne plays it a bit clownish as Newt Scamander, a magizoologist whose search for magical creatures brings him to New York City 70 years before “The boy who lived” ever hopped aboard the Hogwarts Express. There is a visual and immersive quality that we have come to expect when entering the Harry Potter universe, and director David Yates delivers once again. The characters are delightful, realized, and fun, and the environments (including the aforementioned “fantastic beasts”) are dazzling and eye-catching.

sully28. Sully

Sully is not a biopic. It is based upon Chesley Sullenberger’s memoir Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters and focuses almost entirely on the events of January 15, 2009 and the subsequent investigation. Bits of ‘Sully’s’ past are sprinkled throughout, but the film’s main objective is to feature the tremendous fortune that results from having the right people performing the right jobs. Sully is a solid film delivering its message and entertainment as effectively as Sullenberger’s miraculous water landing on the Hudson. Like it’s protagonist, the film showcases a couple of the right men for the job (as well as the right woman for a job that wasn’t there). A testament to superlative acting and creative filmmaking that breathes freshness into a story so recently and so publicly told.

man7. Manchester by the Sea

Everyone you’ve talked to about this film is absolutely right; this is a miserably sad movie. However, what I think too few are saying about it is that it is also hilariously funny. Writer/Director Kenneth Lonergan’s third film in over 16 years is another masterpiece of familial ups and downs. He constructs a film unlike anyone else cutting to the bone with wit, nostalgia, and cold, hard truth. Casey Affleck carries an emotional load as Lee, a janitor who is made legal guardian of his teenage nephew when his brother suddenly dies of a heart attack. This is Affleck’s strongest performance in his budding career as an actor. Understated, but honest, Affleck’s performance has gotten a lot of buzz, but the real champion of this film is Lonergan who gets powerful performances from all of his actors and delivers a fascinating, funny, heartbreaking, powerful film about love, family, and what it takes to survive tragedy.

hack6. Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge is a film that I had trouble placing on this list. First, I wasn’t sure it was top ten material, then once I examined my criteria and determined that it was, I had trouble deciding if it was top five material! Ultimately it’s top six material. Hacksaw Ridge is decidedly two separate films. A coming of age story about a young man named Desmond Doss, played by Andrew Garfield, in Depression-era Virginia falling in love with a young nurse and hoping to find a way to serve his country in World War II as an army medic, even though he refuses to personally pick up a rifle. That story is then catapulted out the window for one depicting one of the most gruesome, gut-wrenching war stories ever set to screen as Doss’s unit is assigned to participate in the Battle of Okinawa, historically referred to as a “meat grinder” of a location for American troops. This is a true story and a remarkable one at that. The first hour is pleasant, sweet, and at times very funny. The second hour is an assault on your senses almost to a breaking point. Vince Vaughn surprises as Doss’s army drill sergeant and the rest of the supporting cast is fantastic including Sam Worthington, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, and Teresa Palmer. Director Mel Gibson makes the most of a powerful story and while his depiction of Doss feels a little too similar to that of another suffering protagonist Gibson is known for, it all works. Gibson has been a bit of a pariah as of late, and his off-screen antics are hard to forgive, but if you are one who can separate the art from the artist, this film is one of the year’s best.

midnight5. Midnight Special

This is where I expect I’ll lose a few of you. What is Midnight Special? Why is it number 5? I am just as surprised as you! I stumbled upon this film on a flight. Jeff Nichols is a young writer/director who I am really starting to love. His last two films, Mud and Take Shelter were excellent, and believe it or not, he actually has another film that he released in 2016 called Loving that is getting far more attention than Midnight Special! Still, I am going to put all my chips in on Midnight Special. I don’t think any synopsis of this plot will entice you to see the movie, so just trust me and check it out (it’s running on HBO and HBO streaming currently). Michael Shannon plays a father whose son appears to have some strange abilities. The boy has recently become the worship center of a strange cult, and when Shannon steals his son away in the night, the cult is determined to get him back. The U.S. government has also caught wind of the boy’s abilities and send an NSA agent to track him down as well. This is a sleek, clever, special little movie, and while some will have qualms about the ending, I think it is exactly the right choice.

Arriv.jpg4. Arrival  

Speaking of alien movies with clever endings, here’s another one! Arrival is the latest Denis Villeneuve film, and if you sensed my budding love for Jeff Nichols’s movies, then you can multiply that by a million for Villeneuve. His track record speaks for itself: Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario, Arrival, and this year Blade Runner 2049! In a different year, Arrival could easily be the best film of the year. Still, number four ain’t bad. Arrival finds Amy Adams putting out another excellent performance as a linguistics professor tapped by the U.S. military to help them interpret an alien language. What makes this alien film different is that 12 alien space crafts have touched down all over the world, and in a world of itchy trigger-fingers, Adams’s encounters and translations hold the fate of the world in the balance. Adams is accompanied by Jeremy Renner who plays a theoretical physicist, and the two of them have great chemistry making for a richly character-driven sci-fi film.

CW3. Captain America: Civil War

Surprise, surprise! The People’s Critic liked a Captain America movie, but this time I’m not alone. Everybody liked this movie. It’s hard not to. Civil War boasts three outstanding achievements that no Marvel film before it has managed thus far. First, it introduces two of the best new characters (Black Panther and Spider-Man, both slated to receive upcoming stand-alone films) and does it with panache! I’ll leave the details about these new characters out so not to spoil anything for the rare reader who has yet to see this film, but both are quite satisfying and Spider-Man especially receives a worthy reboot after some questionable recent attempts by Sony Pictures. Second, the “Civil War” battle is a remarkable scene. This scene replaces the “Battle of New York” from Marvel’s Avengers as the Infinity Stone in the Marvel crown. DC executives responsible for Batman v. Superman (See my five worst films of 2016 for my thoughts on this one!) should take notes on how Marvel succeeds at fighting internal conflict with external conflict! Third, Captain America: Civil War manages to give all of its cast members room to breathe and make a memorable and worthwhile contribution.  No character is squandered, and as I alluded to earlier, this film explores some emotional depth but uses just the right amount of levity and humor to maintain an even tone.

rogue2. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Surprise, surprise, surprise! The People’s Critic liked a Star Wars movie! Again, everybody liked this movie, or at least the last 20 minutes, which are perhaps the best 20 minutes in any Star Wars movie ever! Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a strong, balanced, and entertaining film that plays how we wish the original prequels could have played. There’s a hint of nostalgia along with new and fresh perspectives, which make us forget that we all know where this is going and “forces” us to care and root for these new characters. Director Gareth Edwards designs and directs this film to feel connected but not tethered to the other films, and I think that is a delicate task to accomplish. There are also some major bombshells and any misgivings you have about the film are wiped clean away with the final 20 minutes. If you have any level of appreciation for Star Wars, you will leave the theater in high spirits!

la1. La La Land

I tried people. I tried not to toe the line. I tried not to be all “critic-y,” but goddamnit, my toes are still tap, tap, tapping to this beautiful, heartwarming, goosebump inducing, musical masterpiece. If Rogue One: A Star Wars Story had the best final 20 minutes of any Star Wars movie, La La Land has the best first and last five minutes of any movie in the last five years! What puts it at number one is that between those amazing first five minutes and outstanding final five minutes are 118 exhilarating, beautifully crafted, musical minutes. La La Land is a simple story of Jazz musician meets struggling actor, Jazz musician loses struggling actress, etc., but that’s ok. If the plot were any more dynamic, it would take away from the sensory experience of this film. Gosling and Stone are captivating as the leads and while their voices may not be meant for Broadway, they are perfect for a film that “dances” between worlds. Half nostalgic and half prognostic, La La Land shows us that writer/director Damien Chazelle is more than the real deal. He’s the next big thing! La La Land puts a nice bow on a tumultuous 2016 and is definitely the front-runner for best picture in my book.

The Five Worst Films of 2016

C25. The Conjuring 2  

I’m sad to start this list with a sequel to a film that made my top 10 in 2013. The Conjuring 2 doesn’t really advance the narrative of the original’s characters or reveal any depth to the uncertainty of its source material. In the same way that a television series might be developed for a network, but then the studio makes a deal to tie it to an already proven property in order to reap an existing audience, The Conjuring 2 feels like a Mad Libs horror movie script and the studio slapped The Conjuring 2 on top of it. This is a “been there, done that,” movie for the ages.

BvS4. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

At the end of 2015, we were all gearing up to see what DC had to offer to combat the cinematic monopoly Marvel Studios has had over the superhero genre. Well, the results are in and two of their films make my worst of 2015 list; Batman v. Superman being the first. Yet another bloated set-up piece, these movies need to stop hinting at something and start showing us something. Warner Brothers needs to stop holding its cards too close to the vest and start revving this thing up before we lose interest entirely. Wonder Woman and Justice League are next up for 2017. Let’s hope I don’t have to reserve two more spots on the Worst list for 2017.

nerve3. Last third of Nerve 

I had other films in mind for this list, but I kept coming back to how disappointed I was with the ending of Nerve. Let me start by saying, Nerve as a whole has no business being on a worst of the year list. However, given that my top two movies of the year were given that status in no small part due to their phenomenal endings, I think Nerve stands as a wondrous example of how damaging a bad ending can be. I’ve never been more disappointed in an ending for a movie. Not because it was bad. It was fine. But if the ending was as principled and interesting as everything that came before it, we’d have a much better film. Director Henry Joost is a newbie, but if you’ve seen Paranormal Activity 3, Paranormal Activity 4, and the film Catfish, you’d see where I’m going with this. Endings are crucial and bad endings to good movies are exponentially more damaging.

Suicide.jpg2. Suicide Squad

DC is back again with the number two worst movie of 2016, Suicide Squad. Anticipation couldn’t have been higher for this one. What seemed like dream casting, mixed with a lighter, funnier tone lead many of us to believe this was the film that would right a sinking ship. Instead, it blew one more big, giant hole in the hull. Unfortunately, the box office total of my, Five Worst Films of 2016 list is nearly identical to my Top Ten Best Films of 2016 list. What does that tell you. People are paying for and going in droves to see these bad movies. Suicide Squad is hardly a movie. It’s disjointed, it’s annoying, it’s shallow, and worst of all, it’s boring. Viola Davis attempts to give some credibility and Margot Robbie will be iconic as Harley Quinn, but nothing can save this mess.

now1. Now You See Me 2

Lightening definitely didn’t strike twice for this fledgling attempt at building a franchise. Now You See Me was a perfectly fine, fun little movie, but not everything that is moderately successful needs a part 2 (or a reported part 3!). All the tricks are played out for this band of illusionists. The style was corny this time around, as original director Louis Leterrier was replaced by Jem and the Holograms director, Jon M. Chu. They couldn’t even get all of the original cast back for this thing as Isla Fisher would not sign on and also refuses to sign on for the third film. Red flags abound and poor Daniel Radcliffe never saw them coming as he looks utterly lost and confused in easily the year’s worst movie. Yuck.

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