Movie Review ~ Those Who Wish Me Dead

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A smoke jumper and a 12-year-old boy fight for their lives as two assassins pursue them through the Montana wilderness while a forest fire threatens to consume them all.

Stars: Angelina Jolie, Nicholas Hoult, Finn Little, Aidan Gillen, Medina Senghore, Tyler Perry, Jake Weber, Jon Bernthal

Director: Taylor Sheridan

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Back in the days of “Old Hollywood”, stars would do most anything to get onto the lot for a big studio, a role in coveted film, or to work with the best directors.  Just look at all the ballyhoo actresses went through to try to nab the part of Scarlett O’Hara in 1939’s Gone with The Wind?  Documentaries, movies, and even plays have been fashioned around that race for the role.  With the antiquated studio system getting the heave-ho decades ago and stars working as free agents, they were given more autonomy to take command of their own careers and that’s when the real ‘movie stars’ emerged.  That’s why it’s often true now that getting a star to board your film sometimes means that the film itself has to bend to their needs and not the other way around. 

Take Those Who Wish Me Dead as the latest example.  One only has to read the plot summary of author Michael Koryta’s 2014 book to glean that the part Angelina Jolie is playing in the big screen adaptation premiering in theaters and HBOMax isn’t the lead as originally written by the author.  As Hannah, a grief-stricken smokejumper assigned to a lone fire tower outpost after a bad decision in the middle of an already unpredictable fire resulted in civilian casualties, Jolie is a natural fit for the role but would have seemed like too big of a star to be playing a supporting character (i.e. second fiddle) to the main cast members. 

That’s where Oscar-nominated screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water) comes in.  Purportedly brought in to rewrite the script submitted by Koryta and Charles Leavitt (In the Heart of the Sea), he took such a shine to the story and the character of Hannah in particular that when the original director stepped down, he asked Warner Brothers if he could stick around and direct the film too.  Promising to get Jolie (Maleficent) for the role, Sheridan was granted the chance to direct only his second studio feature (after 2017’s Wind River, though it may seem like he’s directed more after writing the screenplay for 2015’s Sicario, it’s 2018’s sequel, and most recently Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse).  While the script retains the basic ideas found in Koryta’s best-selling novel, Sheridan has largely shifted its focus of characters, jettisoning lengthy plot fabrications that added time and winds up delivering a taut thriller in the process.

Realizing his life and the life of his son Connor is in danger because of what he knows and has shared with the D.A. of Florida who was recently murdered, a widower (Jake Weber, Midway) flees with Connor to the only place he can think of that would be safe, the survival school of his friends Ethan and Allison Sawyer (Jon Berenthal, The Accountant, & Medina Senghore).  Unbeknownst to him, sibling assassins Patrick (Nicholas Hoult, Tolkien) and Jack (Aiden Gillen, Bohemian Rhapsody) Blackwell are already in pursuit and one step ahead of them.  When Connor (Finn Little, 2067) escapes a backroads ambush, he disappears into the forest and runs into Hannah who, displaced from her fire tower because of a lighting strike, is having a bad day herself.

With the brothers tasked with finding the boy that was given critical and damning info by his dad, a forensic accountant that uncovered some shady business dealings, it becomes a race to keep Connor away from the Blackwell Brothers while avoiding a large forest fire they started to smoke out the young witness and his protector.  Needing to overcome her own fears of failure in her recent past, Hannah eschews taking on a total motherly role for Connor and opts instead to treat him like one of her young recruits, pushing him forward as a way to make sure he remains safe in the face of danger.

In moving Jolie’s character to the front of the line, Sheridan does sacrifice some of the business Koryta had involving Connor and the Sawyers…but that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t have anything to do, either.  Senghore in particular is a real find in one of her first major movie roles and by the time you are biting your nails for her character your remember how well Sheridan has written for strong female characters in the past…though he could do to include a few more here and there.  What Sheridan doesn’t do as well in Those Who Wish Me Dead is fill in the character details as richly as he has in the past.  There’s obviously some deeper and darker things going on in Hannah’s life and connections she has to a few of the men in her squad (not to mention Ethan, Jolie and Bernthal share an excellent scene early on in the film that makes even more sense later) but save for showing viewers her penchant for risk-taking by zoom-zooming in the flatbed of a truck down a highway and then opening up a parachute, the character development is lacking in a lot of places.

The good news is that Sheridan has assembled a fine cast that mostly make it over these hurdles with ease.  Jolie’s gamine gait can easily clear unevenly written parts, so she’s taken care of but Hoult and Gillen struggle with defining the Blackwell’s as more than just rote killers.  From what I gather, the brothers were the true stars of the original novel (so much so that family members turned up in unrelated novels by Koryta in the future) but the chemistry between the two men is off.  Heck, I didn’t even know they were brothers until I read the press materials.  Holding much of the movie on his young shoulders, Little acquits himself nicely as a boy that’s seen too much and will pay the ultimate price unless he gets some immediate help.

Running a short 100 minutes, I appreciate that Sheridan kept this running at breakneck speed and think it’s fine how it is but wonder at the same time if Those Who Wish Me Dead might have also benefited from a little extra in its midsection.  The opening has a lot of ground to cover and we all know diving right in is always advisable to grab your audience from moment one and as you approach a finale you should never let the ending dip in energy.  I’d have been OK with having a few more breaths to take around the halfway mark and I think audiences who are enjoying the film will too.  This is above average popcorn entertainment that strikes the right balance in having a movie star paired with the right script/director.

Movie Review ~ Oxygen

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A woman wakes in a cryogenic chamber with no recollection of how she got there, and must find a way out before running out of air.

Stars: Mélanie Laurent, Mathieu Amalric, Malik Zidi, Marc Saez

Director: Alexandre Aja

Rated: NR

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  They say with age comes maturity and that goes double for the film industry.  When French director Alexandre Aja started out in the early part of the new millennium, he hit the ground running with intense fare like 2003’s cult favorite High Tension.  Testing the resolve of his audiences (at least in the U.S.) by refusing to shy away from blood, gore, guts, and other things that make us wimpy Americans cringe, Aja became the go-to guy if you needed your film to push the limits of the R-rating and, at times, good taste.  His remake of The Hills Have Eyes gave some polish to Wes Craven’s grubby bare-bones original and how can we forget some of the visuals brought forth in 2008’s Mirrors (another remake, this time of a Korean film) and 2010’s 3D everything but the kitchen sink update of Piranha?

The old Aja was on display in 2019’s downright terrifying alligator flick Crawl, but something felt different in his approach to what could have been a chomp ‘em and leave ‘em box office gobbler.  Even though he was working with a film shot almost entirely on a soundstage that relied heavily on CGI effects to create its big nasty reptiles, there was a much clearer focus on atmosphere and thrills instead of the pure bloodlust that had fueled Aja’s productions for nearly two decades.  With the pandemic holding up plans for Aja’s big screen handling of the popular manga Space Adventure Cobra, there was an interesting opportunity for the director to step in on a project that had been drifting around for some time.

Originally set-up around Tinsel Town back in 2017 as O2 and set to star Oscar-winner Anne Hathaway, the actress never got around to making Oxygen and was replaced by Noomi Rapace (The Secrets We Keep) and a director who Aja had served as a producer for in past projects.  With its small set-up making it easy to film amidst restrictions implemented during the COVID lockdown, Aja took over as director and brought in Mélanie Laurent as a substitute for Rapace who remained as an Executive Producer.  Filming in July 2020 as Oxygen (or, Oxygène, s’il vous plaît)  the movie was snapped up by Netflix and became one of the streaming services initial offerings in its summer series of weekly film releases.

As the film opens, a woman (Laurent, Enemy) struggles to free herself from a strange cocoon in a darkened chamber.  She’s flat on her back and hooked up to a number of devices within this chamber with only a sentient operating system named M.I.L.O (Medical Interface Liaison Operator) to provide stilted answers to her questions.  It’s not that he’s being evasive (or is he?) but she’s just not asking the correct questions to discover not just where she is but who she is.  With no memory of her name or how long she’s been in what she learns is a cryogenic pod designed for hyper sleep (one that was decommissioned years earlier) she has to get M.I.L.O. to give her information that will help reconstruct the path to her imprisonment.  She can call out to law enforcement but without a name or location they are unable to come to investigate, let alone believe her in the first place. 

Representing another significant step forward for Aja, Oxygen might not ultimately score high on points in the originality department, but it does accomplish some respectable milestones along the way by keeping audiences engaged in the plight of our leading lady as she desperately tries to uncover her identity and how she came to be in her current situation.  I wasn’t sure at first the concept would be able to cover the full run time without cheating in some way and breaking free at some point to explore outside the pod.  I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say the entirety of Aja’s film takes place within the cryogenic pod; instead of that feeling oppressive it winds up adding a degree of energy to the action and Laurent’s performance as her O2 levels decrease and she realizes time is running out.

A mid-point twist is the boost of energy that winds up carrying Christie LeBlanc’s script through to the end and it’s a nice little rug pull that shouldn’t be all that surprising if you were paying close attention from the beginning.  I wasn’t keeping as close of an eye as I usually do so I missed some obvious signs.  Twist or not, there are ample opportunities for Aja to show how much he’s grown-up since those High Tension days of gruesome ugliness.  Now, Aja seems entirely comfortable withholding some of the more squirm-inducing elements for when viewers are already a bit on the run, getting great mileage out of several sharp objects seen as benign medical tools making precise contact with skin.

There’s likely not a lot of replay value to be found in Oxygen once you’ve breathed it in but Laurent’s performance is so good, as is Mathieu Amalric (Quantum of Solace) as the HAL 2000-ish voice of  M.I.L.O., that it’s entirely worth catching at least once.  The bonus is that you’ll see a director genre fans have long admired continuing to find sophistication in his work without losing the pointy edge that made him such a household name in the community to begin with.