Movie Review ~ Nobody 

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Hutch Mansell, a suburban dad, overlooked husband, nothing neighbor — a “nobody.” When two thieves break into his home one night, Hutch’s unknown long-simmering rage is ignited and propels him on a brutal path that will uncover dark secrets he fought to leave behind.

Stars: Bob Odenkirk, Connie Nielsen, Aleksey Serebryakov, Christopher Lloyd, RZA, Michael Ironside, Colin Salmon, RZA, Billy MacLellan, Araya Mengesha, Gage Munroe

Director: Ilya Naishuller

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: It’s coming.  The time for theaters to re-open and welcome movie-goers back in larger numbers is getting close and even now you can see there are more films premiering only in cinemas and not available via streaming or On Demand.  On the one hand, I get it.  Studios want to stay in the good graces of theater chains while also preserving the overall experience for their audiences.  On the other, even though the country continues to be vaccinated at a good rate there is still a long way to go before people (including myself) would feel comfortable sitting for an extended period in an enclosed space with others we aren’t acquainted with.  Until then, I’ll feel lucky that I can see a theatrical-only release like Nobody (from Universal Pictures) in the comfort of my own home so I’m able to let you know if it’s worth the risk to venture out to your local multiplex.

Though I’m still always going to advocate that you avoid unnecessary social interaction outside of your own home and hold out until a movie you want to see is available to rent or buy via streaming, I suppose if you were looking for a comfort-food casserole sort of action movie to sate your thirst for mindless fun, Nobody would be a full flavor meal to dine out on.  It has a bruised-knee charm that makes it a decent watch and a leading performance from an unexpected star which keeps it always surprising and surpassing your expectations.  It’s pulpy and loud but isn’t insignificant in the way it wins you over on sheer chutzpah.  Plain and simple — it’s worth putting some real pants on for.

The most notable thing about middle-aged Hutch Mansell (Bob Odenkirk, Nebraska) is that he keeps to his routine. His suburban life with his pretty wife (Connie Nielsen, Wonder Woman 1984, Sea Fever) and two children isn’t boring, it’s just standard.  He’s not complaining he’s just…settled.  Working a number pushing job at a factory seems to get him through the day and although he aspires to one day own the factory, his mild-mannered attitude might be drowned out by a more emphatic employee who the boss (Michael Ironside, Scanners) takes more notice of.  It’s a beige life for a beige guy.  At least that’s what it looks like on the surface.  A late-night home break-in is the catalyst that begins to pull back the curtain on Hutch’s life before the wife, kids, and 9-5 job entered the picture.  It awakens a side of him that few have seen…and lived to talk about.

Over the next several days, Hutch will run afoul of a karaoke-singing Russian crime boss (Aleksey Serebryakov, in a performance of golden gusto) who quickly sets his sights on eliminating this unexpected thorn in his side.  They’ll also be car chases, knockdown brawls leading to broken bones and worse, and a booby-trapped finale that will remind you of a certain Christmas classic.  It’s all eager to please and screenwriter Derek Kolstad (The Falcon and the Winter Soldier) doesn’t miss an opportunity to find a clever way to clean house.  It’s also up to director Ilya Naishuller to not let us get too far ahead in Kolstad’s script – though Hutch’s shadowy past might seem obvious at first, the full truth is more fun.

Even though it’s ultimately just a less flashy version of the John Wick films (no shocker, Kolstad wrote all three) set to a soundtrack filled with so many on the nose up-tempo tunes I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a wedding DJ watching that uses it exclusively at their next gig, Nobody whizzes through 92 minutes without pausing much to let us catch our breath or think through how silly it all is.  A lot of that has to do with Naishuller’s breakneck pace and caffeine-hyped editing but don’t forget to give Odenkirk much of the credit for making Hutch such a standout character.  Sure, he’s playing a seemingly dull guy that’s just harboring a lot of well-kept talents, but there’s more to him than his bag of tricks.  I’ve yet to truly take much notice of the actor until now but he’s an astonishingly credible action star, an everyman that takes a licking and keeps on ticking, absorbing the blows but finding creative ways to dole out punishment as revenge.  It’s all Odenkirk’s film so even strong supporting work from Nielsen (sadly underused considering the butt kicking we’ve seen her do recently in Zack Snyder’s Justice League and more) and a neat appearance from Back to the Future‘s Christopher Lloyd as Hutch’s irascible father.

With its short length, Nobody would be a good option if you are thinking of dipping your toe back into the theater-going experience because it’s a breeze to sit through.  If anything, make time for it when you do see it pop into your at home options in several weeks because this side of Odenkirk was exciting to see.  With his popularity at a peak nowadays with TV’s Better Call Saul continuing to earn him strong notices, Nobody is something to behold indeed.

Movie Review ~ SAS: Red Notice

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: An off-duty SAS soldier must thwart a terror attack on a train running through the Channel Tunnel.

Stars: Sam Heughan, Ruby Rose, Andy Serkis, Tom Wilkinson, Tom Hopper, Hannah John-Kamen, Noel Clarke

Director: Magnus Martens

Rated: R

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (2.5/10)

Review:  Do you ever find yourself watching a movie with lauded actors and ask yourself “What are YOU doing in this movie?”  It may be a good movie, it may be a bad movie, but the question itself is valid at that moment.  What we’re really asking is: Did you do it for the money?  Plenty of actors show up in films, television shows, or commercials because of one thing: the payday.  While I’d like to net the kind of dough they make on those projects (and so do you!)  I wonder if taking on these types of roles makes them enjoy those Caribbean vacations a little less or causes them to stop a few seconds longer at the stoplight in their Tesla pondering why.  Ah…who am I kidding.  They don’t give it a second thought.  Work is work and plenty of people would give their eye teeth to do what they do.

Even though I do believe that, watching SAS: Red Notice, I would have loved to have had a direct line to stars Tom Wilkinson and Andy Serkis to ask them to level with me and admit that they made this one for the money.  Both men look positively miserable throughout; Wilknson comes off like he’s about to cry often while Serkis compensates by gritting his teeth so loudly it sounds like a rogue squeaky wheel shopping cart has become another character in the movie.  They have every right to look pained, too, because SAS: Red Notice is a total turkey, an absolute howler of film that boasts action scenes almost as flat as the acting and lots of explosions that produce more heat than the main love interests.  At one point early on, I thought the film was intended to be a farce in the vein of The Naked Gun because the tone being conveyed was so far off from the Mission: Impossible-esque mood the storyline suggested.

A family of elite assassins, The Black Swans, have been hiding out in London trying to avoid detection and capture for war crimes they were hired to commit by the highest levels of the Queen’s government.  Determined to keep their dirty business dealings under wraps, the Prime Minister (Ray Panthaki, Official Secrets) orders his top guy George Clements (Serkis, Long Shot) to take out William Lewis (Wilkinson, The Lone Ranger) and his crew, including his daughter and skilled protégé Grace (Ruby Rose, The Meg).  With assistance from SAS soldier Tom Buckingham (Sam Heughan, Bloodshot) the Lewis compound is raided but when their targets slip through their fingers it only leads to more problems for Buckingham and his team.

Waiting to regroup, Buckingham and his doctor girlfriend Sophie (Hannah John-Kamen, Ant-Man and The Wasp) decide to head to Paris for a weekend away but wouldn’t you know it, they’re leaving on the wrong train at the wrong time.  Then again, perhaps it is the right train/right time because Grace has infiltrated the speeding railcar, taking the passengers hostage.  Threatening to set off a bomb as the train makes it way through the Channel Tunnel between London and Paris, Buckingham is a one-man army onboard as he works his way through a deadly batch of trained killers while his fellow SAS mate Declan Smith (Tom Hopper, Terminator: Dark Fate) tries to help him from London.  At the same time, Grace has figured out someone is attempting to stop her and also found the one person on board the train that can be used as a bargaining chip…Sophie.

Based on the first of three books featuring Tom Buckingham written by Andy McNab, the adaptation by Lawrence Malkin features dialogue so silly it’s amazing none of the actors throughout to suggest changing it…or removing it.  Hearing Sophie tell a complete stranger about Buckingham carrying around her recently deceased cat might have made a good anecdote in the book but on screen it makes Buckingham look creepy and turns Sophie into one of those women in distress that can only talk about their boyfriends when they aren’t in the room and then spend every moment they are in the room fighting with them.  It’s no wonder a number of the characters she winds up talking to make a quick exit (either out of the scene or off the Earth) because who wants to hang around her for too long?  Speaking of Buckingham, McNab and Malkin seem to have made him a mixture of Ethan Hunt from M:I and Jack Ryan from Tom Clancy’s novels but, like that tins man in Oz, they forgot to give him a heart.  Wait for the scene where Buckingham attempts to emote with complete and total conviction…and try your hardest not to laugh.  Not that it helps things that Heughan is an absolute dud dud dudderson as Buckingham, displaying zero charm and negative zero charisma with John-Kamen as his supposed long-time girlfriend.

The only chemistry that is generated is between John-Kamen and Rose in a strange bit of the captive and the captor having a kind of weird unspoken romantic connection.  It’s not at all implied and neither actress is strong enough to pull those nuances out of the script or even thin air but it’s some natural instinct given off that makes it feel so.  After the action sequences where she doesn’t speak, it’s the only other good thing Rose can be noted for because her acting is frighteningly wooden here.  A flash in the pan when she debuted on Orange is the New Black years ago, she hasn’t ever really acquitted herself in the acting department.  Even though her fight scenes are well done and she has the appropriate energy and style to pull them off, anytime (absolutely anytime) she’s required to act past that the movie grinds to a dead stop.   It’s unfortunate because Rose feels like she could be a star if all the pieces lined up better — there’s a place for her but not at her current level.  Not by a long shot.

It’s just a mess of a film across so many areas that fixing one wouldn’t do the trick.  When you have none of the actors are on the same page, there can be no dynamic created. It feels like a group of strangers just showed up and were put on film.  Much of the movie depends on those pre-existing relationships and without that base, there’s nothing to go off of.  Piling about nine endings on in the last ten minutes and then making us wait for the absolute longest aerial pull in I’ve ever seen, SAS: Red Notice can’t even end the movie correctly.  Having never read the books (and now having no interest in reading the next two) I can’t know if the jokey style of the film was in response to the source material’s tone or if director Magnus Martens just couldn’t figure out how he wanted his picture to come across.  If he wanted action, he got some.  If he wanted comedy, he struck gold.

Movie Review ~ Phobias

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Five dangerous patients, suffering from extreme phobias at a government testing facility, are put to the ultimate test under the supervision of a crazed doctor and his quest to weaponize fear.

Stars: Alexis Knapp, Charlotte McKinney, Lauren Miller, Monique Coleman, Martina García, Hana Mae Lee, Leonardo Nam, Benjamin Stockham, Anthony Gonzalez, Steve Park, Macy Gray, Ross Partridge, Joey Luthman, Micah A. Hauptman, Mackenzie Brooke Smith

Director: Jess Varley, Maritte Go, Camilla Belle, Chris von Hoffman, and Joe Sill

Rated: R

Running Length: 85 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: I like bad horror films just like every other true horror fan out there.  You horror fans reading this, don’t pretend like you read that sentence and don’t agree with it because for as much as we love our tried and true classics like Halloween, Friday the 13th, Scream, A Nightmare on Elm Street, etc. we also have a fond soft spot for the other side of the movie score.  These stinkers may not reach favor with the majority of the public, but odds are if you like a silly/stupid horror film there’s a good chance someone else chalks it up as one of their long-standing must-sees as well.  Yet there’s a definitive line in the sand that gets drawn between the bad horror films that just land off the mark, but you could tell at least aimed in the right direction, and the horror flicks that are just bad movies overall.  Those are the ones to look out for, heed the warnings on, and avoid at all costs.

Newly added to this running list is the new cheap-o lame-o dumb-o anthology film Phobias.  Consisting of five short vignettes joined together by a wraparound story, you may want to have your dictionary handy to look up the definitions of the phobias because making a point of defining anything clearly isn’t the first priority of any writing or directing in this headache.  Instead, the tone from piece to piece is wildly different (somewhat excusable at first seeing that each has a different director) but there is no real cohesion to the entire saga, so the audience is left lurching forward and braking hard based on what director shows slightly more promise.  The result is a discouraging downward spiral for a concept that should work better than it does and one that could have set the stage for an easy round of sequels had the collective unity of the films been clearer.

A marginally decent start kicks of Phobias using Robophobia (fear of robots, drones, robot-like mechanics or artificial intelligence) as a jumping off theme.  Asian-American Johnny (Leonardo Nam, One for the Money) is a meek programmer caring for his ill father and avoiding local bigots that regularly torment him.  All this begins to change when he receives a new friend that promises to turn things around for him.  If only the friend wasn’t a sinister AI program that’s out to take over Johnny’s life and move from a digital space to the real world.  This clunky yet promising chapter/prologue ends right when it’s getting interesting so we can see how it will feed into the rest of the night’s events.  The next time we see Johnny, he’s at an undisclosed location along with several others monitored by a quack doctor looking to “harvest fear” through one of those contraptions that looks like it was made for a grade school production of Frankenstein.  While our visits to this interlacing story are brief, they unfortunately leave enough time for Ross Partridge (The High Note) to gnosh on some of the cardboard scenery as the psycho scientist.  To his credit, Partridge looks unhinged enough to believe the whack-a-doo malarkey he is spinning.

Each patient in the ward with Johnny has a particular phobia the dear doctor wants to exploit to gather the most fear in a single dose.  So we ping over to the usually fun Hana Mae Lee (Pitch Perfect) in Vehophobia (the fear of driving) who delivers an oddly detached and dead-eyed performance as a cruel woman that has manipulated men all her life and is about to pay a price.  While Hoplophobia’s fear of weapons has the potential to be more of a cautionary tale that maybe deserved a different platform with a longer space in which to tell its story, actor turned director Camilla Belle (The Lost World: Jurassic Park) doesn’t yet have the right tools to fashion it into a mature angle.  Ephebiphobia is the fear of youth and when you meet the wretched scuzzbuckets that terrorize a woman in the middle of the night you might come down with it as well…or does the woman have her own secrets that absolve the meen teens from their dirty deeds?

That brings us to Atelophobia, or the fear of not being good enough.  Looking up the definition afterward (you’re welcome, by the way for getting these as you go!) I was surprised this was how the phobia was defined because it’s the simplest definition for the wildest of all the chapters in a very dull book.  It’s honestly the reason to see the film at all and I have a sense the people involved knew it, and knew reviewers would say it, and that’s why it’s conveniently right at the end of the movie.  Starring singer Macy Gray as a stern executive striving for perfection at all costs, it has the most gore and I think looked the most polished.  Gray is sort of all over the map, acting-wise, but her oddball behavior seemed to make sense with the weird nature of her character.  I wouldn’t spoil where this story ends but kudos to Gray for really buckling down and embracing some gruesome work.

If it weren’t for that final Atelophobia segment and Gray’s off-the-wall performance (I’m not sure if it was good…I think it was…but it could just as easily be terrible.) Phobias would be a complete write off because even the small flashes of style it has are completely consumed by a lack of insight into anything fresh or engaging. Substituting crass dialogue in place of clever lines that enriched the story, the lack of polish only winds up reflecting poorly on those onscreen and you can’t blame it all on them.  Numerous writers/directors were involved with Phobias and it feels as if none of them ever met to discuss what this project was about and intended to be…or who it was for.  It’s certainly not for serious horror fans or even those of us that enjoy the occasional cheese-ball title.  Watch it for Gray or skip it all together.  Better yet…watch Arachnophobia again.  That’s one that never gets old.

Movie Review ~ The Human Voice (2020)

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A short film adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s one-act play. It follows a desperate woman who waits for the phone call of the lover who has just abandoned her.

Stars: Tilda Swinton, Agustín Almodóvar, Miguel Almodóvar, Pablo Almodóvar

Director: Pedro Almodóvar

Rated: R

Running Length: 30 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  I mean, let’s just get this out of the way first off.  Has there ever been a better trio of collaborators?  Pedro Almodóvar, Tilda Swinton, and Quarantine?  Seriously, who knows if it hadn’t been for this strange year we just experienced if a short film like The Human Voice would ever have happened.  I’m not sure I totally love the work as a whole but the artists involved are of such impeccable quality that you sort of just accept what they offer you and be glad they showed up at all.  How else would we ever be treated to an Oscar winning director and actress joining up and giving us a bite-sized version of their best and tastiest calling cards?  Our treats include such bon-bons as Almodóvar’s rich sense of color and eye for camera angles, Swinton’s never to be duplicated way for approaching a line reading and her ability to wear the most outrageous clothes and have it feel like she’s tromping around her house in sweatpants.  Visually, the film is no question a stunner…it’s all those pesky words that might derail you over its half hour running length.

Jean Cocteau’s 1930 monologue-drama has been seen on film (and in drama/speech competitions) numerous times but as adapted by Almodóvar it’s given a handy reading, at least in the stage actions of Swinton (Suspiria) as a spurned lover saying good-bye to her flame.  The lover is already gone and Swinton’s character isn’t taking it too well…that’s why an early trip to a hardware store sees Swinton buying a hefty axe that she uses to exercise some frustration on a suit she’s laid out on their bed.  (Side note: any film where Tilda Swinton buys an axe in the first ten minutes instantly merits a watch in my book…but, you do you.)  Then…a phone call.  Largely dialogue-free up until now, this is where Almodóvar’s film starts to get a little treacly and fartsy (not artsy) and not even Swinton’s dynamite costumes by Sonia Grande (The Lost City of Z) or the exquisite production design from Antxón Gómez (Pain and Glory) can pull it back.  It just sort of fails to go anywhere beyond the confines it sets for itself and with art direction so vibrant, it’s an odd dichotomy to work with.

That’s disappointing because for a thirty-minute film with a great pedigree, The Human Voice shouldn’t feel tough to sit through.  And, at times, it does.  On stage, I’d most certainly be enraptured in the presence of the actor playing the part and how they convey the feelings they are working with moving through this grief, but something is lost in the film we watch and the emotion that can’t come through the screen.  That’s not Swinton’s fault (because her reactions are not entirely what we anticipate) and I don’t even think it’s Almodóvar’s fault (seeing that he has conceived of it as more modern and speaking to the pandemic times we are living in)…it’s the piece itself.  So what we’re left with are a chorus of strong voices that harmonize for a time but gradually fall out of tune because of one discordant note.

Movie Review ~ The Courier

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Cold War spy Greville Wynne and his Russian source try to put an end to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan, Jessie Buckley, Angus Wright, Kirill Pirogov, Iva Šindelková, Željko Ivanek

Director: Dominic Cooke

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: At first glance, you may be wondering why an espionage drama with an accent on the drama was opening in theatrical release during a pandemic the same weekend a major superhero movie was debuting on a streaming service at home.  Wouldn’t most audiences be otherwise engaged devouring the much-anticipated arrival of the four-hour epic that is Zack Snyder’s Justice League, especially after the reviews were deservedly glowing?  Ah…but let’s not forget the art of counterprogramming because I think Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, the studio and distributor behind The Courier, was going for everyone else who weren’t comic book inclined and up for something a little less gargantuan.  It’s a smart move to match a surprisingly smart film, one that is far better than its staid title and dusty looking premise would otherwise imply.

I’ll be upfront and say that these murky spy thrillers are becoming slightly old hat to me, especially after seeing them done so well in stalwarts like any of the early James Bond films, 1973’s The MacKintosh Man, or even in homegrown films such as Three Days of the Condor or The Parallax View.  Heck, even Benedict Cumberbatch, the star of The Courier, has had his run at the spy game before in 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or in his 2014 Oscar Nominated role as Alan Turing in the WWII tale The Imitation Game.  Last year’s A Call to Spy was dismally dull and I half expected The Courier to turn out in much the same way: dry and demanding of your rapt attention with not a lot to show for it all when the lights come up.

So it was refreshing to find almost from the start there is a palpable current of energy running through the film.  It’s subtle, and the movie couldn’t ever be classified as suspense-driven or even ramped up enough to get your pulse racing (unless you get all a flutter seeing Cumberbatch’s bare backside), but it’s there and it separates The Courier from the rest of the pack.  That’s what also elevates the story of English businessman Greville Wynne’s involvement with MI6 during the early days of the Cuban Missile Crisis from coming off as a forgotten footnote during an important historical incident.  Screenwriter Tom O’Connor and Dominic Cooke aim to inform but don’t forget the entertainment part of moviemaking at the same time.

When USSR military intelligence agent Colonel Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) reaches out to the American embassy via a covert coded message with news that current leader Nikita Khrushchev is fast-tracking nuclear plans that would lead to war, MI6 and the CIA step in.  Their goal: find a way to pass information back and forth with Penkovsky to obtain precise information that will prevent Europe and the US from entering a high stakes battle with the Soviet Union.  Recognizing they need someone the Russians wouldn’t suspect but who could also handle the assignment, Wynne’s name is floated due to his business dealings throughout Europe.  At first, the upstanding Brit needs some convincing, but when reminded of the whole Queen and country pledge, he agrees and begins traveling back and forth to meet with Penkovsky.  Keeping both of their wives unaware of their dealings, the men strike up a friendship over time, and this personal relationship begins to threaten their overall mission, alliances, and allegiance when Khrushchev’s secret police get a whiff that a mole has burrowed its way in.

After a not-so-great showing in The Mauritanian back in February, Cumberbatch is back in the groove, nicely tuning into Wynne’s businessman persona at the outset of the film and letting the weight of the deception start to chip away at him over time.  The lies he tells his wife (an underused but still powerful Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose) threaten to destroy the peaceful life he had previously held at home.  While he serves his country gladly, the aftereffects and extraordinary price Wynne will pay may be too great to come back from.  On the other side of the border, Ninidze is a strong counterpart to Cumberbatch as a father and husband with his own set of secrets to hide.  Struggling with similar fears that spring from seeing traitors executed in front of his eyes, he knows what’s in store for him if he’s caught.  The film largely belongs to the two men, but aside from Buckley there’s a very Mrs. Maisel-y performance from Rachel Brosnahan (I’m Your Woman) as a CIA handler and an always welcome appearance from Željko Ivanek (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) as Brosnahan’s superior.

What a pleasant surprise to find this nifty little package being delivered with some confident finesse during an extended awards season that’s seen all types of overly earnest films sputter out.  Originally seen at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival under the title Ironbark (a much better title taken from a code name that’s used by one of the operatives), it was filmed in 2018 and finally seeing a release now.   Though it’s not eligible for anything and definitely isn’t going to be on the radar for next year’s haul, it’s a strong showing for everyone involved and a worthy way to spend two hours.  I can’t quite recommend running out to theaters to catch The Courier but when it arrives for home viewing I would encourage you to give this one a spin.  Wynne’s involvement in the civilian spy business is fascinating to learn about and is carried off well by a cast and production team that funnels their energy and resources in the right direction – and it makes all the difference for an audience to understand the subtleties between a story that is told once and one that bears retelling in the future.

Streaming Review ~ The Falcon and The Winter Soldier (Episode 1)


The Facts
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Synopsis: Following the events of ‘Avengers: Endgame,’ Sam Wilson/Falcon and Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier team up in a global adventure that tests their abilities — and their patience

Stars: Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Daniel Brühl, Emily VanCamp, Adepero Oduye, Wyatt Russell, Danny Ramirez, Miki Ishikawa, Desmond Chiam

Director: Kari Skogland

Running Length: 48 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  With the release of Avengers: Endgame in 2019, a lot of loose ends were tied up for a number of our A-List stars that had reached the end of their contracts.  Namely, Robert Downey, Jr.’s power source as Iron Man finally ran out and Chris Evans as Captain America decided it was time to put down his shield and enjoy life, letting time take its turn with him.  Other stars are retreating back to their own established franchise films (Ant-Man, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Thor, The Incredible Hulk) or starting their own (Black Widow) but what about the other Avengers that might be considered the ‘B’ team?  Well, there might not be a movie for them but there could be a Disney+ show that would work…

Viewers have already experienced WandaVision, the surprisingly winning nine-episode series that premiered in January on Disney’s subscription streaming service and became 2021’s first watercooler hit, attracting a diverse audience of established fans and newcomers lured in by the shows intriguing premise.  Less Marvel-ey, at least at first, than what many had come to expect, the series featured the bereaved Wanda Maximoff creating an insular world where her true love and sentient being Vision could remain alive.  Taking over an innocuous town and turning them into unwitting participants in an ever-changing world modeled after television sitcoms, Wanda can’t keep the outside world, or evil magic, out of her sphere for long.  Eventually drawing out her powers as the Scarlet Witch, the series would drop the clever in favor of clamor, drowning out what was interesting week-to-week with more standard efficiencies that were a means to an end for future Marvel properties.

Mere weeks after WandaVision wrapped up its run comes the premiere of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier on March 19 (the same weekend Zack Snyder’s Justice League comes out…oh, the timing!) and the first of its six episodes were screened for critics before the release.  If the first episode is any indication, there’s a new formula afoot in the Marvel Television Universe and it’s heavy on the emotional fallout experienced by the Avengers after they return to their “regular” lives.  While it starts with a thrilling action set piece that wouldn’t have been out of place (with a bit more polish in the effects and editing department) in a big-screen Avengers adventure, Episode 1 switches gears fairly rapidly and slows down the pace significantly for the remainder of the 40-minute run time.

The good news is that the Marvel group and experienced TV director Kari Skogland have assembled a cast that I think is going to be worth tuning in for every week.  Though in this first episode we don’t get to meet the full roster that’s credited in the well designed but gargantuanly long closing credits, we at least get our first introduction to Adepero Oduye (12 Years a Slave) as Falcon/Sam Wilson’s (Anthony Mackie, Love the Coopers) Louisiana-based sister Sarah.  Running the family fishing boat and trying to make ends meet, Sarah is a good reality check for Sam and I hope remains a key player over the next several episodes.  We also get a sense of where Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan, Endings, Beginnings) is, mentally, after returning from his exile and beginning to make amends to those he either hurt or empowered as a Hydra weapon.

I would have liked to see one more episode before making a full review call on this one because aside from a few hints at a possible anarchist enemy that may become a larger threat to the two men and a further challenge that hits closer to home for Sam, there’s not a lot of information given out in this first episode.  Like WandaVision, it’s slickly made and doesn’t feel like it’s a television show attempting to be something bigger but I do wonder what they’ll be able to accomplish with less episodes in which to tell their story and even more characters to introduce over the coming weeks.  Not that it matters…if fans went crazy for the quirkiness of WandaVision I think they’re going to find some comfort in the familiarity of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier.

Movie Review ~ Zack Snyder’s Justice League

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Determined to ensure Superman’s ultimate sacrifice was not in vain, Bruce Wayne aligns forces with Diana Prince with plans to recruit a team of metahumans to protect the world from an approaching threat of catastrophic proportions.

Stars: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller, Ray Fisher, Amy Adams, Jeremy Irons, Connie Nielsen, Diane Lane, J.K. Simmons, Ciarán Hinds, Amber Heard, Joe Morton, Ray Porter, Jesse Eisenberg

Director: Zack Snyder

Rated: R

Running Length: 242 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  Has there ever been a more bizarre and divisive situation of nerdom than the one surrounding the twisted tale of Zack Snyder’s Justice League?  By his own request, the director was replaced during the final weeks of production on the 2017 release (including editing and reshoots) so he could deal with the emotional recovery of the death of his daughter.  It was the right choice for Snyder but it left the film in the hands of Joss Whedon, the Marvel marvel who couldn’t find the same tone Snyder was going for and leaned into a more studio and populous theater friendly piece that didn’t serve the darker storyline that was imagined.  Not unexpectedly, though the film was ultimately credited to Snyder it bore little resemblance to his original vision and was hampered by many of Whedon’s trademarks, down to cringy bits of humor that didn’t work and a stupefying amount of bad special effects.

With Warner Brothers and the DC Universe riding high off the phenomenal success of Wonder Woman released earlier that year, the dismal failure (and tepid reception) of Justice League put a nail in the coffin for Henry Cavill’s Superman and encouraged Ben Affleck to exit a solo Batman project that was in the works.  It also derailed a planned film for The Flash and bumped the Wonder Woman sequel out, not to mention leading to some troubling accusations from co-star Ray Fisher on how the studio treated him after voicing concerns about unprofessionalism on set.  All in all…a big mess.  While a subsequent Aquaman film performed well and looked encouraging for Jason Momoa’s future as a box office star, Wonder Woman 1984s bow in late 2020 was met with true vitriol (all very unfair in my eyes) so the shaky ground remained.

While all of this was going on, though, a strange groundswell was starting that began almost as a joke but started to catch on before turning into a full-blown movement by comic book and franchise fans.  This was of course the birth of the # phenomenon and it was hard to avoid the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut pandemonium that took over Twitter.  Everyone knew that Snyder had expressed some displeasure that his vision wasn’t seen through to the end and that so much of what he shot wasn’t included or scenes he had wanted to shoot weren’t shot at all.  What people were clamoring for was to see Warner Brothers to hand the movie back to Snyder and let him re-edit the movie into the “Snyder Cut”… which is not exactly unheard of.  They’ve done it before with 1980’s Superman II, replacing director Richard Donner before filming was over but releasing his (not as good) version decades later.  Director’s cuts are fairly standard for releases now but there was something about this particular movie that kept both sides tight-lipped, with Warner Brothers even claiming at one point that there would definitely be no Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

Here we are, though, and HBOMax is releasing a four-hour cut of Snyder’s reassembled film that aligns with his original plan.  Running a full two hours longer than the 2017 release, Snyder used material that Whedon chose not to go with and also shot quite a lot (a lot!) of new footage – so much so that this feels almost like a remake of the film everyone thumbs down-ed four years ago.  We all know that longer doesn’t equal better but in the case of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, it most certainly does.  My original review of Justice League pointed out that the film’s introductions to the new characters felt rushed and not a lot of the movie felt cohesive due to the streamlined runtime.  With four hours to work with, Snyder is able to give each character their due and then some, providing more than enough character building to have the head spinning finale actually mean something this time around.

By and large, the story is mostly the same.  After burying Superman at the end of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck, Live by Night) begins to assemble a team of other individuals with superpowers while Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot, Ralph Breaks the Internet) returns to her civilian life with the occasional crime fighting break now and again.  Batman has a sense that a darkness is coming and the need for a team of united strength is important and it’s only after Wonder Woman gets a desperate sign from her homeland with the key to a hidden message that she joins him in the recruitment process.  Together, they seek out Aquaman (Momoa, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part) who has remained a mystery man in the waters off Iceland, The Flash (Ezra Miller, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) a kind-hearted social outcast that can run faster than the speed of light, and Cyborg (Fisher) a former high school football player saved from death by his scientist father (Joe Morton, Godzilla: King of the Monsters) now struggling to adjust to his altered appearance and overwhelming technological access.

Their combined powers will be needed to defeat Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds, Closed Circuit) a ghastly beast that has arrived on earth searching for three boxes that, when united, will call forth a dangerous entity that will destroy Earth.  As he travels around the globe gathering the pieces of the puzzle from clans that have an impact on Wonder Woman and Aquaman, the group realizes that the box possesses multiple powers.  (Yes, you’re correct in thinking this is all hokey pokey stuff and it’s just as absurd as it was the first time around…but with more time to add in context and backstory, it goes down just a little easier.) In addition to vanquishing all life, the “unity” can also restore it and bring the dead back to existence.  A fairly good tool to have when you’re down one superhero and know where he’s buried…

Like I said before, everything about Zack Snyder’s Justice League, is just…more.  There’s more story, more action, more blood (when people get thrown against walls, their heads tend to explode quite messily), and more gritty language than what you’ve come to expect.  It isn’t anything gratuitous and only adds to the all-encompassing feeling that Snyder has returned to the film.  I couldn’t shake off the feeling while watching it that it was the kind of event entertainment that back in the day networks would have shown once a year and the entire family would watch as a group.  Could the film have been trimmed down a bit – absolutely – but I was fairly enraptured with it all from the moment it started until it ended.  It may run 240ish minutes but it definitely doesn’t feel that long.

Not to say there weren’t some clunkier moments along the way.  At times, when the action dips you start to try to pick out which scenes were new and which ones were previously shot and it’s fairly obvious by tracking Affleck’s face which switched between expertly chiseled and comfortably fuller throughout.  Several scenes were clearly filmed on a soundstage that doesn’t match the rich detail of the other production design so one moment you’re with Diana as she’s traveling through a cave, Indiana Jones-style, and the next you’re watching a random actress silently acting out an overly cliché scene that’s there to show Cyborg’s softer side.  There’s more than a handful of effects which come off like a video game or Saturday morning animation than the polished inspired moments they could be.

Speaking of the effects and visuals, aside from the occasional sketchy etching a great effort has clearly been made to right some terrible wrongs seen in the original, namely the horrible job done on Cavill’s (Enola Holmes) face to digitally remove a mustache he had while filming reshoots.  Either those scenes were jettisoned completely, or the hundreds of digital techs credited at the end had their work cut out for them because by and large the movie looks sharp and excellent.  A number of action sequences have been restored and they haven’t been carelessly re-inserted – they’ve all been smoothly incorporated into the rest of the movie.  An early sequence of Wonder Woman stopping a bank robbery/bombing has been elongated and made it far more intense, visceral, and displays more of Wonder Woman’s abilities.  I went back and watched the same scene from the original and its so watered down and brief that it barely registers as a bout of action for the heroine.  Now it’s suspenseful and doesn’t feel like it minimizes the superhero or the plot.

Divided into six parts and an epilogue (which has about three or four endings within and several whopper surprises), Zack Snyder’s Justice League, is big big BIG and doesn’t quit until it’s good and ready to.  Its release renders the previous version totally obsolete in my book and this will be the only Justice League that I’ll recognize for future rewatches because it appears to tell a full story with a better overall picture of where these characters are headed.  Or were headed.  Last time I checked Cavill and Affleck were out and a new Batman movie is due out soon with Robert Pattinson in what looks to be the darkest take on the Caped Crusader yet.  Who knows what will come of this group for future outings but we do know that another Aquaman is swimming into production and due in 2022, the same year as The Flash movie which is rumored to have Affleck in it as well.  Despite those off-the-mark reviews for the recent sequel, a third Wonder Woman film has thankfully been greenlit.  Perhaps we’ll get a Cavill appearance in one of those films…or maybe Snyder will benefit from another Twitter grassroots campaign and a Justice League II will come to pass.  No matter what, Snyder’s vision is finally out there and whether you were a strong supporter of this cut being released or think the studio caving to fan demand is the most terrible thing ever (um, why?) this a film that demands some attention and a little admiration as well.  It’s goes for the brass ring with bold gusto.

Films in the DC Extended Universe

Man of Steel (2013)

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Suicide Squad (2016)

Wonder Woman (2017)

Justice League (2017)

Aquaman (2018)

Shazam! (2019)

Birds of Prey (2020)

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

Future films

The Suicide Squad (2021)

The Flash (2022)

Aquaman 2 (2022)

Shazam! Fury of the Gods (2023)

Oscar Nominations – 2021

After much delay, the nominations for the 2021 Oscars have been announced and as usual they brought with them a certain amount of celebration in the recognition of work that was well-deserved as well as disappointment that our favorites of the year didn’t make the cut…a feeling I’m sure the performers/technicians/producers share in a somewhat more heightened capacity 🙂

Click HERE for a full list of the nominations and stay tuned for more reviews of upcoming films as I make my way through the remaining movies in an attempt to get through all of the Oscar nominees this year.

Movie Review ~ Raya and the Last Dragon

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An ancient evil has returned to the fantasy world of Kumandra and it’s up to a lone warrior, Raya, to track down the legendary last dragon to restore the fractured land and its divided people.

Stars: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wang, Alan Tudyk, Lucille Soong, Patti Harrison, Ross Butler

Director: Carlos López Estrada, Don Hall

Rated: PG

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  It really is fascinating to see how far animation has come, specifically Disney animated features, over the last three decades.  As hand-drawn animation was being phased out in favor of the faster speed of computer rendered movies that could produce stunning life-like characters, Disney managed to have their cake and eat it too when they brought Pixar into the fold while maintaining their own feature animation department.  For a while, it was Pixar that ruled the roost and turned out motion pictures of high caliber that recalled that Disney renaissance of the late 80s/early 90s that all but saved the studio.  The hand-drawn side had measured success with strong films but it wasn’t until the one-two punch releases of Frozen in 2013 and Moana in 2016 that made it clear there was still life left in the format.

Evolving from simply bringing classic fairy tales to life, the studio has listened to their audiences around the globe and continued to create work that represents people from all walks of life from shore to shore.  Now, instead of asking “What bedtime story are they bringing to the screen” we ask “what country/culture are they using as an influence this time around?” and I think that aside from it being a necessary business move it shows a company changing with the times and leading the way, not struggling to catch up with their competitors.

That’s not to say each film is easy.  Take Raya and the Last Dragon for example.  This new feature went through some interesting press as it made its way to a release since first being announced back in 2018 thanks to a small bit of business regarding the voice casting of its lead female.  Though she had originally auditioned back in 2019, Kelly Marie Tran (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) was not cast as Raya, a young warrior princess on a quest to restore order to a divided land.  The original actress that was cast wound up not bringing the kind of maturity the filmmakers had wanted so they returned to Tran a year later and Tran re-recorded the role.  It’s not the first time Disney has done this (2015’s The Good Dinosaur was almost entirely scrapped after it was completed and redone from the beginning) but it was interesting that they could have had Tran all along but opted in another direction first.

Inspired by the culture and communities found in the Southeast Asian islands, Raya and the Last Dragon is an original story from your usual full table of writers that contributed bits and pieces and rewrites over the course of production, but it is surprisingly full in its mythology and storytelling.  Hold on tight because the opening narration from Raya swiftly relays via flashback the history of the land of Kumandra and how it became split into five separate tribes after evil spirts named the Druun ripped through the bountiful landscape.  This was a time of dragons that drew on their own magic to protect the people of Kumandra from being turned to stone by the Druun that continued to terrorize the land.  In doing so, they fell victim to the grasp of the evil entity and the magic was transferred to a single dragon that finally unleashed the might of the power and restored balance.  The people were saved but divided and the dragons were no more.  Only the power source of their magic remained, housed in a glowing orb held in a sacred temple by one tribe.

Continuing in flashback, we see how Raya’s father (a mother is never mentioned), the leader of the tribe and tasked with protecting the orb, only wishes to unite the five tribes again but his efforts fall on ears that won’t hear, bringing out the worst in the visiting leaders.  During this visit, young Raya bonds with Namaari, the daughter of another tribe leader but the friendly interaction turns unexpectedly sour.  True intentions are revealed and in doing so sets into motion a tidal wave of events that have long lasting repercussions for everyone, sending Raya on a quest to the ends of the mighty rivers in search of answers from a source only spoken about in legend.  By the time she’s found the right river’s end, she meets the dragon Sisu (Awkwafina, The Farewell) that holds a key to uniting the tribes…but a familiar foe from her past has also been seeking the mythical creature and will stop at nothing to get what they want.

To summarize any fraction of the remaining plot of Raya and the Last Dragon would be impossible in the space I’ve allotted for myself here and would reveal too much of the unique characters of the real and imagined kind the Disney animators and directors Carlos López Estrada and Don Hall have in store for viewers.  It’s a more complicated plot than most and younger viewers may find it harder to follow from a story perspective, though I can imagine older adults will find the addition of a narrative that involves more political maneuvering and topical contemplations on community agreement that are strikingly reflective of our own current woes quite intriguing.  It also finds time to have the typical Disney humor and the laughs are welcome among some of the darker subject matter.

As expected, the animation work is stunning and not only is the amount of detail that can now be displayed totally mind-blowing, but some scenes look like an actual live-action film and I still am on the fence if it really wasn’t.  Was it?  With the story taking up our attention and the visuals leaning toward the overwhelming, it’s the voice work that tends to be a little lacking in this one.  That’s not faulting the actors in any way, but the focus just isn’t there as much as it has been in other films.  Tran has the right balance of passionate fight within her and sensitive care that she shares outwardly; clearly the filmmakers made the right choice to use her.   In smaller roles, Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians), Daniel Dae Kim (Hellboy), Sandra Oh (Tammy), and Benedict Wong (The Martian) are pleasant but, again, never ‘pop’ like I’m used to voice talent doing in the past.  Only Awkwafina drums up some energy with her line readings and you can’t help but hear a little bit of Aladdin’s Genie in the performance…which is fine…but it’s definitely there.

Lacking the kind of big moment that were defining pieces of Frozen and Moana, I’m not sure where Raya and the Last Dragon will wind up within the Disney Animation roster when the rankings are reshuffled.  It has the prestige of a well-honed plot and is one of the classier screenplays Disney has produced in some time, but in other ways the film has a flatness to it that it can’t quite rise above.  It achieves a beautiful moment of harmony right at the end…but by that time we’ve waited nearly two hours for that tug at our hearts and for Disney, that may be too long of a wait.

 

If you catch Raya and the Last Dragon in theaters, you’ll also see Walt Disney Animation Studio’s first animated short in five years, Us Again.  For those watching the movie at home, Us Again will be available on Disney+ in June!  Check out my review of Us Again here.

Movie Review ~ Pixie

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: To avenge her mother’s death, Pixie masterminds a heist but must flee across Ireland from gangsters, take on the patriarchy, and choose her own destiny.

Stars: Olivia Cooke, Ben Hardy, Daryl McCormack, Colm Meaney, Alec Baldwin, Dylan Moran, Rory Fleck Byrne, Fra Fee, Pat Shortt, Frankie McCafferty

Director: Barnaby Thompson

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: There are times when you can think of movies like food.  Some are hearty main courses that fill your belly with their ambition and dogged charm like 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark while a comfort meal of a film such as Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion will always be one you know you can return to time and time again.  Singin’ in the Rain is like a delectable desert that is almost at times too perfect to get to the bottom of and Tootsie is a fizzy refreshment that seems to fit whatever table you find yourself at.  Some films are more like appetizers than anything else, quickly consumed and enjoyed but no match for the more savory dishes that are yet to come.

The Irish crime comedy Pixie is a quirky little amuse-bouche that you won’t turn your nose up at but won’t come back for seconds on, either.  It packs a nice little punch and while it has a number of pleasingly salty double crosses and tart one-liners, the plot feels a tad crunchy.  Promising to be more of a raucous romp than it winds up being, there’s still a lot to like about director Barnaby Thompson’s cheeky film based on a screenplay written by his son, Preston.  While it plays a great deal like a TarantinO’Shea production that allows it to start off on the right foot, Pixie doesn’t have quite the stamina to maintain an overall tone to be as bold in its choices or twists.  So it can’t hope to leave an impression that lasts, despite a solid cast, some lovely location shooting, and inventive work by cameraman John de Borman (Quartet) throughout.

In a small church not too far outside Belfast, Ireland, two masked men interrupt a group of priests that turn out to be less holy men and more holy rollers armed with shotguns to protect a sizable suitcase full of drugs.  The robbery goes right…until it goes wrong for reasons of a more personal nature.  You see, the men were acting on the advice of Pixie O’Brien (Olivia Cooke, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), a sneaky little thing that hopes to bypass her gangster stepdad (Colm Meaney, Tolkien) and violently oafish stepbrother (Turlough Convery, Saint Maud) and use the drugs to pay for her passage to America.  Both men were involved with Pixie and had a different understanding of who was the more important one to her.  It doesn’t end well.

By happy (and highly convoluted) coincidence, Pixie’s classmates Frank (Ben Hardy, Bohemian Rhapsody) and Harland (Daryl McCormack) come into possession of the stolen drugs Pixie was hoping to snag for herself.  After getting wind that her original fellas mucked it up and the drugs are in play somewhere else, it doesn’t take her long to find out who they might have been transferred to.  When she finds them, she tells the men where the drugs came from and paints a vivid picture of what happens to those who steal from the crime families in their town.  Fearing for their lives but mostly falling under her charms, both men agree to travel across the country with their unpredictable new friend who has vowed to help them sell the drugs and attempt to salvage their reputation back home.  However, Pixie hasn’t counted on several factions getting wind of the theft (including a smug Alec Baldwin, Aloha) and when they all start to converge on the same village, she’ll have to think fast if she wants to get out alive and consider if she trusts her new mates enough to bring them along with her.

While I appreciated that Barnaby Thompson keeps the film moving at a healthy clip, it can’t quite hide the obvious shortcomings in the script from his son.  The whole set-up at the heart of Pixie has been done before and feels recycled from a draft of an earlier film.  In fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised in the least to learn this was a script that had been bouncing around for more than a decade before it got made.  The filmmakers should have just set Pixie in the early 1990s because it has a sensibility and gait that doesn’t remotely resemble the world we live in now.  The violence is bloody (yet highly digitized) and the language chirped through with such rapidity, everyone sounds like they are being kept from using the bathroom until the scene is in the can (pardon the pun).

Why the film has the energy it does, and what makes it fall on the slightly recommended side are the performances from our lead trio of young stars.  Cooke, Hardy, and McCormack make for a fine triumvirate of players and work well off of another either as a group or one-on-one.  Cooke continues to change things up with each successive film she makes.  The sprite character with a fatal edge in Pixie is light years away from the punk rock singer that turns her life around in 2020’s Sound of Metal.  I wish the material had risen up to meet her instead of her having to lean down to match its height but, no matter, she elevates the screenplay immeasurably with her natural charm.

What becomes pretty clear in the final third of Pixie is that the script only was thinking about how to get to a certain point (an eyebrow raising shootout between mobsters disguised as priests and nuns) and then it doesn’t have much more up its sleeve.  Once it assembles all the players where it imagined them to be it doesn’t quite know what to do with them or how to get at a resolution that falls into step with the askew tune the rest of the film had been singing up until that point.  This is why Tarantino, love him or hate him, remains an ace at the three-act structure.  He’s always thinking about that end goal and when the movie is over you can look back and see how well appointed it was in service to all the plot details throughout.  Pixie wants to have those same attributes but isn’t sophisticated enough to play on that same level.

All that being said, there’s far worse ways to spend an hour and a half (Barnaby Thompson produced Fisherman’s Friends last year and that was dreck compared to this) and Pixie at least has some pep in its step thanks to Cooke so you’re never apt to be bored for long.  It may not entirely steal your heart, but you won’t feel robbed of your time once you’ve tooled around the countryside with Pixie.