Movie Review ~ Chaos Walking

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Two unlikely companions embark on a perilous adventure through the badlands of an unexplored planet as they try to escape a dangerous and disorienting reality, where all inner thoughts are seen and heard by everyone.

Stars: Daisy Ridley, Tom Holland, Mads Mikkelsen, Demián Bichir, Cynthia Erivo, Nick Jonas, David Oyelowo, Kurt Sutter, Ray McKinnon

Director: Doug Liman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (4.5/10)

Review:  I don’t know, folks, there may be some trouble keeping Tom Holland on the A-List if these past few weeks at the movies have been any indication.  It’s no wonder the hype machine on the third Spider-Man movie (titled Spider-Man: No Way Home, due later this year) surprisingly kicked into high gear right around the time the blistering review for Holland’s Apple TV+ film Cherry started popping up.  Just two weeks later, Holland has a new project coming out and another reason for his team to be sweating.  I can only imagine what bit of Spider-Man news will come out this weekend to direct attention away from the news that Chaos Walking is another dud from Holland, though this time it’s not entirely his fault.

This long in the works adaptation of the first book in a trilogy of YA novels by Patrick Ness published in 2008, it’s not shocking in the least why Chaos Walking struggled to get off the ground over the years.  Arriving on the scene in the midst of a number of other popular series for teens being adapted into movies with more of an adult slant, a fair share of high-profile writers tried their hand at the script before it finally wound up back with Ness who gave it a final polish.  At one point, Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis was circling the project and while that might have been an interesting route to take, I actually think the director Lionsgate wound up with, Doug Liman, is a solid choice.  Responsible for admirable work like The Bourne Identity and Edge of Tomorrow, Liman is no stranger to complex narrative or impressive visuals so he wouldn’t have struggled with bringing to life a world that has unique characteristics while not getting too deep in the fantasy of it all.

Two hundred years in the future on another planet called, of course, New World, is the small settlement of Prentisstown, named after the malevolent mayor (Mads Mikkelsen, Casino Royale) who presides over the entirely male population.  All of the females of the group were killed by the Spackle, native inhabitants to the planet that descended on the group one day not long after the settlers arrived on the planet, around the same time both genders discovered the planet gave them the ability to hear and sometimes even see the thoughts of other men.  The women’s thoughts, however, were hidden. These thoughts on display came to be called “Noise”.  While the book has the luxury of explaining this phenomenon in detail, the movie skirts the subject fairly quickly so we’re left with a “that’s that, move on” sort of attitude, not that we can ever hear the “Noise” that clearly thanks to the sound design being so muffled throughout.

Too young at the time of her death, Todd Hewitt (Holland, The Impossible) never knew his mother but is aware she trusted Ben (Demián Bichir, The Hateful Eight) and Cillian (Kurt Sutter, writer of Southpaw & creator of Sons of Anarchy) to care for him as his adoptive parents after she was taken.  So he spends his days trying to suppress his Noise while helping on Ben and Cillian’s humble farm.  He’s returning from the field one day when he sees something he’s never encountered before but only heard about…a girl.  Crash landing on the planet as part of the Second Wave, Viola (Daisy Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express) is the only survivor from her crew and needs Todd’s help to find a communication device to contact her ship so they know she made it and won’t abandon their mission.  However, Viola’s arrival uncovers a deadly secret from the history of Prentisstown that a number of people, including the town’s holy man (David Oyelowo, The Midnight Sky) would just as soon stay buried.  Pursued by those he formerly trusted, Todd and his dog Manchee accompany Viola to the far ends of New World where they’ll discover more truths about Noise, New World, and each other.

To his credit, Ness has laid a groundwork for a series that has potential.  So why is Chaos Walking so decidedly unexciting in its action and unmoving at its core?  Much of that comes down to what I think are simple logistics; nothing in the movie ever works in harmony so you have, essentially, chaos throughout.  The acting doesn’t seem to gel with the script, finding some of the cast exceling by tuning in their performances and taking the material for what it is and nothing more (like Ridley who got good at that working on the Star Wars films) while others take it too far in the other direction, working so hard to uncover what’s not there that they wind up totally blank themselves (sorry, Mr. Holland).  The simplistic, truncated script doesn’t seem to work with the style of movie Liman wants to make, either.  Liman’s action sequences are the best parts of the movie without question but they’re few and far between and never turn the dial up far enough so that you feel like any stakes are raised.

Chaos Walking also has a very bad habit of letting the focus fall on the wrong people for too long and forgetting (sometimes entirely) about characters that were introduced as important.  I won’t say who, but there’s one character played by an Oscar-nominated performer who never gets a final scene, so we have no idea what happened to them.  The last time we saw them, they may have been in danger but Liman and Ness never make it clear which way the teeter was tottering. It’s unfair to leave people hanging like that.  Also, the movie commits a cardinal sin that you simply do not do if you want a compassionate audience to remain even the slightest bit on your side.  Again, I don’t give out spoilers but if you’re paying attention to who goes with Viola on her journey you might be able to guess what said sin is.  And it’s not pretty.  It’s a cheap movie device that screenwriters should find a way out of using because it’s expected and, when it happens, only serves to show the inherent weakness in creative thought for how to motivate your hero/heroine.

Before I forget, we have to circle back to Ridley and Holland again.  Though Ridley manages to come out slightly unscathed here, there’s still a bit of a wonder why she’s back in this neo-sci-fi work so close to the end of her tenure in Star Wars.  If I were her agent, I’d be steering her away from these types of roles in favor of work that is completely different, so she isn’t pigeonholed.  Ridley is a solid actress but there isn’t much for her to work with, but at least she’s able to fashion it into something not totally goofy.  The same can’t be said for Holland who is reduced to muttering most of his lines (turn the subtitles on, you’ll thank me), many of which are descriptions rather than actual sentences, so he comes off like he’s just verbally pointing out things. “Yellow Hair” “Girl” “Pretty” “Bug” “Girl” “Pretty”.  Could another actor have fixed this?  Maybe not, but Holland seems more confused with what to do than anything… all the way up to flashing his bare bottom while fishing for his dinner.  The scene feels there to wake up anyone that might have been about to doze off.

Though this is based on the first book in a trilogy I’d be amazed if Chaos Walking performs well enough to warrant a sequel and it seems as if the filmmakers knew that too.  Thankfully, while the door is clearly open for a continuation, the ending can be interpreted in a number of different ways depending on how you’re approaching the film.  As a fan of the novels, I’m sure you’ll see the possibilities of what’s to come.  If you are new to the series and were entertained, could be that now you are invested and are crossing your fingers they can get Ridley and Holland back together again to finish the story.  However, my camp is the one that gets to the end and is ready to walk on past any more installments.  It doesn’t walk, nor run, nor jump, nor fly…Chaos Walking merely limps along, disappointingly so.

Movie Review ~ Doctor Strange

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A former neurosurgeon embarks on a journey of healing only to be drawn into the world of the mystic arts.

Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton, Scott Adkins, Amy Landecker, Benedict Wong

Director: Scott Derrickson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: Can I let you in on a little secret?  Every time I hear the phrase ‘space time continuum’ in a movie I start to look for the nearest exit.  After years of taking in sci-fi movies that zig zag and fold back on themselves (like Interstellar and Inception) I’m at the point where any talk of the butterfly effect, messing with the natural order, or the aforementioned space time continuum means that naptime is imminent for The MN Movie Man.

I make this admission at the start of my review of Doctor Strange so you know that though I went in with mid-range expectations for Marvel’s latest superhero origin story (as 2nd tier as the Doctor Strange character may be), the moment the talk turned to time travel my internal timer started its countdown to impatience.  Here’s a film with a lot of heavy hitters and some big ideas that can never corral them all into being on the same page at the same time. What made previous Marvel films work so well (aside from Thor, Thor: The Dark World, and Ant-Man) was a meeting of the minds where effects and character lived in entertaining harmony.

Shades of the first Iron Man haunt the first quarter of the movie as we meet a brilliant but uncouth surgeon (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game) known for his steady hand and icy heart.  A terrible car crash (never text and drive, ok?) leaves him scarred and shaky but just as cool and distant to those that care for him.  Exhausting his options medically he hears of a possible miracle cure near Kathmandu and it’s there he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, Trainwreck) who opens a new world of possibilities.

As he regains his strength and explores the untapped regions of his consciousness, Strange becomes wrapped up in a plot orchestrated by a nasty villain (Mads Mikkelsen, Casino Royale, who has a PhD in playing bad guys) and his crew of disciples wearing some fierce drag make-up to, what else?, destroy humanity.  Leaping from Hong Kong to London to New York, Strange makes a pit stop to get some medical attention from a former colleague and love interest (Rachel McAdams, Spotlight) before being chased through a kaleidoscopic parallel universe where the world gets turned literally upside down and inside out.

If you’re like me and are literally physically exhausted by movies that are all flash and special effects spectacle, you’ll get the same bad taste in your mouth from Marvel’s newest piece in their larger cinematic puzzle.  The best parts of Doctor Strange are also the most taxing on the brainwaves and when you add a 3D presentation on top of it all it’s time for the theaters should pass out free barf bags.  I don’t get queasy in movies but almost from the start I was nervously wondering where I would toss my cookies if I was forced to flee.

Yeah, the effects are impressive (and pleasantly colorful) when it counts but too often give off the stink of third level craftsmanship.  That goes for the script as well with McAdams’ character being so tragically underwritten they couldn’t even find a place for her to show up in the last 40 minutes.  Swinton seems to be having a crazy ball as a bald headed mystic (sketched in the comics as an elderly Asian man…oy) but Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) looks like he wants to cry for the majority of his screen time.  It’s only in the closing credits (it’s a Marvel movie, you know you need to stay to the end, right?) that we see what may have attracted him to the role.

That brings us to Cumberbatch who is merely serviceable in the title role.  Sitting here I can’t think who would have been better but the character is so onerous in his bravado that Cumberbatch has no room to wiggle around in.  Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister) doesn’t do him any favors by allowing a cape to steal the scenes it shares with Cumberbatch…yes you read the right, Cumberbatch gets upstaged by an article of clothing.

If credit should go to something, it should be to the entire cast for giving it the good old college try with some very silly material.  Cumberbatch and his gang have a way of conjuring portals to hop continents by doing a modified “wax on” sort of motion and around the 100th time this action is performed I had to let a laugh escape.  The sight of all these characters making something out of nothing draws some obvious parallels to the Oscar nominees playing them.  Destined to be one of the films you’ll beg to skip if doing a Marvel marathon down the road, Doctor Strange wheezes when it should whallop.

The Silver Bullet ~ Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Trailer #2)

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Synopsis: Rebels set out on a mission to steal the plans for the Death Star.

Release Date: December 16, 2016

Thoughts: Not that it’s a very high bar, but this second trailer for December’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is better than most films we’ve seen so far this summer.  Maybe even more than 2015’s Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, this spin-off prequel sends waves of nostalgia over the viewer. Director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) seems to have created a movie made now that feels like it was lensed in the ‘70s and has cast it with a striking group of fresh faces creeping their way up into the A-List.  I’m even more excited to see how this ties into the saga of films that it takes place before and it’s a given that the film will be a swell Christmas gift in just a few short months.   Watch the first teaser here.

Movie Review ~ The Hunt (Jagten)

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A teacher lives a lonely life, all the while struggling over his son’s custody. His life slowly gets better as he finds love and receives good news from his son, but his new luck is about to be brutally shattered by an innocent little lie.

Stars: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Annika Wedderkopp, Lasse Fogelstrom

Director: Thomas Vinterberg

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Life experience has taught me that there are some lies we desperately want to believe and some truths too horrible to fathom and that seems to be the thread at the core of the searing drama The Hunt (Jagten).  There’s something about the way a foreign film pulls no punches that maximizes the impact of our experience as audience members – though I can easily see The Hunt being remade in the US I can’t imagine how the overall energy of the movie could be duplicated.

In a sleepy Denmark town, Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen, Casino Royale) is an assistant teacher at a school working primarily with younger children.  A divorced father that keeps to himself but is well respected (at a distance) by his fellow teachers and townspeople, he seems to have a life that is arranged to his liking.  Though he doesn’t see his son as often as he’d like, you get the impression this is a man that goes with the flow and doesn’t disturb the peace.

When a lie involving Lucas spreads like wildfire through the school and town, his life is turned upside down in tragically terrible ways.  Try as he might, Lucas fights a battle where the odds were never in his favor and we can only watch as this good man is enveloped by darkness.  This is a film that from start to finish has an ominous feel that manages to keep you on the edge of your seat until the credits roll, never quite sure how everything will unfold (or unravel).

Director Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration) co-wrote the film with Tobias Lindholm and both men have the appropriate amount of compassion for their lead character even as they continue to find ways to ensnare him.  I usually have a problem with films that have multiple climaxes but in the case of The Hunt each coda  and an unforgettable epilogue only deepen the resolution in most satisfying way.

Mikkelsen deservedly won the Best Actor award at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival for his sympathetically shattering turn here…a far cry from the villains he’s portrayed on screens both large and small (he also plays Hannibal Lecter on NBC’s hit show).  There’s a scene near the end of the film where Mikkelsen sits alone on a night that people should be together and his loneliness is palpable and terribly sad.  Even if things are sorted out, we doubt that anything will ever be the same for him again.

This is one of those movies that has the tendency to slip by mature, intelligent audiences and I’d urge you to make the effort to track this one down.  It’s one of the best films I saw in 2013 and months later I’m still haunted by Mikkelsen’s performance.

Bond-ed for Life ~ Casino Royale (2006)

The James Bond franchise is celebrating its 50th birthday this year and with the release of Skyfall I wanted to take a look back at the 22 (23 if you count the rogue Never Say Never Again, 24 if you count the 1967 spoof of Casino Royale) films that have come before it. So sit back, grab your shaken-not-stirred martini and follow me on a trip down Bond memory lane.

The Facts:

Synopsis: In his first mission, James Bond must stop Le Chiffre, a banker to the world’s terrorist organizations, from winning a high-stakes poker tournament at Casino Royale in Montenegro.

Stars: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Jeffrey Wright

Director: Martin Campbell

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 144 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:

After Die Another Day, the Bond series would go through another long hibernation until its producers and studio settled a few legal issues that had been slow burning for several years.  When the 21st James Bond film was ready to move into production it was time for a new actor to take on the role of 007 – after a lot of rumor and speculation it was blonde, blue-eyed Brit Craig that won the role.  At first, hardcore fans were agog that their dark horse agent created by Ian Fleming would now be sporting a new look…but most changed their tune when Casino Royale was released in the fall of 2006.

Marking the first time the franchise had gone back to an original Fleming full source novel since Moonraker, Casino Royale had been given the film treatment a few times before…in a television movie and a spoof film from the late 60’s.  This Casino Royale, however, would adhere more closely to the original novel and act not only as an introduction to the Bond of Craig but also as a way for the series to get a fresh start.

From the opening moments we can tell that this will not be your typical Bond film.  Leaving out the traditional gun barrel opening was risky but winds up fitting in perfectly to the prologue’s origin story aspirations.  This pre-credit sequence is raw knuckle but restrained energy filmed in black and white that leads to an explosion of color during Daniel Kleinman’s gorgeous animated credit sequence.  Paired with Chris Cornell’s rock theme song, it’s clear that this is not your granddad’s James Bond.

The longest Bond film to date, Casino Royale is a white hot film that keeps the grand villains trying to take over the world at bay and instead focuses on a more personal and one on one approach as Bond matches wits and poker hands with evil banker Le Chiffre (Mikkelsen) at the titular casino.  There’s about an hour of lead up until the games begin and it’s here we see that Bond is a loose cannon that has just achieved his double O status.  Operating as a shoot first and ask questions later sort of agent, Bond’s first scene after the strong opening is a breathless chase over rooftops, construction cranes, and through an embassy before he finally gets what he’s after. 

Craig’s brute force physicality is exactly what Bond has needed for quite some time.  The previous actors playing the role all came across as intelligent agents but I never fully bought into the fact they could knock someone’s lights out with a single punch.  In the guise of Craig, Bond is an agent not to be messed with lest you want to pick your teeth up off the ground.

Appearing late in the game is Vesper Lynd (Green) who represents the financial institution bankrolling Bond’s admittance to the high stakes poker game that occupies a good portion of the second act.  From the moment she plops down and proclaims “I’m the money.” both Bond and the audiences know that we’ve met a woman that might just be his equal.  It helps that Green is excellently cagey in her portrayal of Lynd…we’ve seen enough Bond films to know that he’s been double crossed before…so how much can we trust her? 

Craig and Green’s screen chemistry goes on for days and could fuel a small island – both actors really understand the roles they are playing and how they relate to each other.  The complexities are great and it’s a credit to both that you don’t see them working as hard as we come to realize they are.  Green is so perfect…I’d be hard pressed to offer up a better Bond girl.

Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre cries blood and has a torture method sure to make any male viewer wince…Craig is particularly good in these torture scenes in conveying real pain and conflict.  The way the film is structured it’s never clear if Le Chiffre is the main villain or the shadow for someone behind the scenes…there’s a few twists to be had but sometimes the stakes don’t feel as high as they could be.

Dench is back as M and while chronologically it doesn’t make sense that she’s present, I can’t imagine the role without her.  With each film the writers are smart to beef up her contribution and she maximizes every zinger for all its worth. 

The last Bond film to be this long was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and like that film Casino Royale has a deeper story to tell.  It’s refreshing that the producers and director Campbell (returning after GoldenEye) take the time to let the film have its moments that don’t involve big chases and fiery explosions.  It doesn’t feel as long as it is and all production values work in harmony to provide great entertainment for longtime Bond fans or those that are new to the world of 007.