Movie Review ~ Thor: Love and Thunder

The Facts:

Synopsis: Thor enlists the help of Valkyrie, Korg, and ex-girlfriend Jane Foster to fight Gorr the God Butcher, who intends to make the gods extinct.
Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Christian Bale, Tessa Thompson, Jaimie Alexander, Taika Waititi, Russell Crowe
Director: Taika Waititi
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 125 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review:  We’re pretty deep into the Marvel Cinematic Universe now that we can freely talk about those first two Thor movies and how not that great they were, right?  Good.  Starting in 2011, the Norse god made a dull debut in a standard special effects picture when the gathering of the Avengers was still in its infancy.  While Thor (Chris Hemsworth, Blackhat) would make a solid addition to the first Avengers in 2012, the next standalone film in 2013 was perhaps even more of a disappointment.  Lifeless and aimless, coming out between Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier made Thor: The Dark World look even more pedestrian by comparison.

It surprised many, then, that 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok was the energy boost it proved to be.  As part of the Marvel blitz of films in 2017/2018, leading toward the final official two Avengers films, new director Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit) brought a renewed strength and style this hero desperately needed.  Leaning heavily into the silly comedy that Waititi was known to mix nicely with dynamic visuals and narrative, this third Thor outing had a dynamite villainess (Cate Blanchett, having a blast) and even gave Hemsworth a shot of adrenaline he’d been missing.

With the next phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe looking far into the future, Thor would always play a part. Still, it was never sure where he’d fit since Ragnarok and previous post-Avengers appearances changed much of his trajectory.  While Waititi was on a solid roll as a director, sometime actor (Lightyear), and producer of several highly-regarded properties, it was a coup for Marvel to get him back on Thor: Love and Thunder. Part of the anticipation, then, for this fourth installment was to see where Waititi would take the blonde bodybuilder butt-kicker next.

Despite continuing to help when needed occasionally (hence an early appearance by the Guardians of the Galaxy), Thor prefers to keep a low profile and discover his inner zen after years of fighting world-crushing evil.  Suffering much loss of family and friends, Thor has gotten good at holding others at arm’s length and not allowing them to get close.  It’s only after Gorr (Christian Bale, Out of the Furnace), known throughout the galaxy as the God Butcher, appears and begins to enact a vengeful vendetta against the gods he believes wronged him when he needed them most that Thor is called back into action. 

To defeat this potent foe, Thor must team up with Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, Sylvie’s Love), now King of New Asgard and former flame Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, Lucy in the Sky) transformed into Mighty Thor thanks to a reconstructed version of Thor’s hammer Mjolnir, along with a rock gladiator (voiced by Waititi), and a duo of screaming goats (the funniest of several running gags).  Their quest to stay one step ahead of the murderous Gorr will lead them to a city of gods ruled over by Zeus (Russell Crowe, Unhinged), where they hope to gather a greater allegiance and, later, to the far reaches of the universe robbed of all color.

I’ll start by saying that the marketing for this film (posters, trailers, etc.) are totally on target and nail the right vibe that continues to help define Thor as separate from the other Avengers, who are already adept at curating their brand.  Waititi has contributed so much to give Thor and his gang a near-kitschy ‘80s feel, and it works as well here as it did in the previous film.  What doesn’t work as well is Waititi’s insistence on overplaying that wacky comedy which, when doled out in spurts, works nicely.  When it’s nonstop goofiness, as it often is in Thor: Love and Thunder, the movie can be exhausting to watch and genuinely baffling to experience.

It’s nice to see Portman back, you can see why the chance to work with Waititi was an enticing offer to get her to return. One wishes she had more robust material to work with and her overall purpose wasn’t so rudimentary.  There’s an essential piece of her puzzle not given away in the trailers, so I won’t spoil it here, but the writers lay something on Jane Foster to overcome and care so little about it aside from it being a convenient plot device, they don’t give anything in the way of specifics. (I know that’s just as vague and non-specific but once you see the movie you’ll understand why and also what I’m talking about.)  Then you have Crowe with the strangest of accents (perhaps wanting to compete with Tom Hanks in Elvis for the worst attempt at indistinguishable dialect) in a befuddling appearance that’s more jokey than jovial. 

Thankfully, Hemsworth keeps the movie somewhat grounded and reminds you that Thor: Love and Thunder is, at its heart, a superhero film.  As strange as it was to see Bale appear on the other side of the good guy/bad guy wheel, the Oscar winner does wonderful (and frightening!) work. Several sequences deliver quite nicely, despite an overabundance of somewhat shoddy CGI…if you can even see it in the first place.  One battle near the end has monsters barely defined before they are defeated.  Does it deliver the kind of standalone fun that recent Marvel success stories have?  I don’t think so, and, based on the shoulder-shrugging post-credit sequences, I’m not sure I’d be chomping at the bit for the next installment of a Thor story either.

Movie Review ~ Unhinged


The Facts
:

Synopsis: After a confrontation with an unstable man at an intersection, a woman becomes the target of his rage.

Stars: Russell Crowe, Caren Pistorius, Gabriel Bateman, Jimmi Simpson, Austin P. McKenzie

Director: Derrick Borte

Rated: R

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  They tried, bless their money grubbing hearts, but they tried.  Studios that had big summer plans with franchise films set to open since the beginning of April have desperately adjusted their schedules to see if their movies could possibly debut and bring in some dough.  Disney kept pushing their live-action Mulan back before finally announcing it would debut in most countries on their streaming service for a $30 rental fee, Universal moved both their newest Fast and Furious flick and October’s Halloween sequel to 2021, and hard-nosed Warner Brothers continues to deny science and nudged Christopher Nolan’s Tenet back a week at a time before picking a date in September and (as of now) sticking with it.

Who could have ever predicted that the first new film arriving in theaters to welcome back brave audiences would be Unhinged from Solstice Studios, a fledgling company soldiering forward with its initial release in a country still taking stock of a massive virus crisis?  And what a welcome back it is.  Movie-goers that have been busying themselves on repeated viewings of nostalgic classics, binging on television shows, and trying out the latest offering from the well-stocked on demand sector are in for a rude howdy-do courtesy of Russell Crowe’s garish road-rage thriller.  It’s tense as all get-out and slick as can be but it’s also so nasty and mean-spirited you’ll wish you had watched it home so you can shower after to wash its palpable grime off after.

A grim prologue finds Crowe’s Tom Cooper already hopping over the line of bad judgment, leading into a current events credits sequence that might just send you hunting for your last Xanax.  Before we see Tom again, we’re introduced to Rachel Hunter (Caren Pistorius, Mortal Engines) a young mother going through a divorce and teetering on the edge of barely getting by.  Her son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman, 2019’s Child’s Play) and live-in brother Fred (Austin P. McKenzie) are all too happy to point out her shortcomings but not so into helping out with solutions to her crumbling business or relationship.  Only her lawyer friend Andy (Jimmi Simpson, White House Down) seems to be actively looking out for her best interest.  Everyone else wants something from her or needs her to make good on promises she can’t always keep.

She’s near the end of a short fuse when she finds herself behind a truck at an intersection while already running late to drop her son off at school.  When the truck doesn’t move at the green light she lays on her horn once…then twice…then swerves around only to find herself in bumper to bumper traffic going the other direction, more than enough opportunity for the truck (and the man within) to catch up with her.  Re-enter, you guessed it, Tom Cooper who demands an apology which Rachel isn’t eager to give.  When strained niceties turn to aggressive threats, Rachel finds herself and her loved ones at the epicenter of Cooper’s dangerous psychotic rage.

What’s good about a film like Unhinged is that it perks up someone like me who has been missing those fun B-movie thrillers of the 90s.  After all, it wouldn’t be very sporting of me to drone on in my reviews about the death knell of those mid-budgeted suspense yarns and then kick to the curb the literal first one out of the gate when theaters have reopened.  All the same, there’s such an inherent meanness to Carl Ellsworth’s original screenplay that I have to say what started off as a nail-biting tale fueled by impending dread gives way to something far less well-intentioned.  When Cooper becomes an unstoppable monster hell bent on destroying Rachel’s life with his bare bloody hands in the most grievous ways possible, Unhinged becomes an upsetting and increasingly uncomfortable watch.  Is this supposed to be the kind of entertainment we have been clamoring for?

It would be easy to argue that the violence Cooper inflicts is no less gratuitous than your standard Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers sequel but there’s a clear distinction between those fantasy world characters and this film that’s set squarely in our realistic modern times.  It’s as if Ellsworth’s created a cypher for some kind of anger he feels toward society and uses it as a battering ram against anything that gets in the way.  Countless innocent lives are lost in the film, some for no other reason than they may be annoying in a way our judgmental culture has deemed them to be.  You also can’t skirt the fact that while Cooper is indeed a psychopath, Rachel is given multiple opportunities at the outset to put a pin in their traffic scuffle but refuses to do so…which propels Cooper to pounce on his murder quest.

It almost feels too easy to say Crowe (The Water Diviner) is perfectly cast in the role of an off-his-rocker nutjob but…he is.  Wearing a faux fat belly so fake looking I swear I saw the square edges when he turned from side to side, Crowe plays the role like a white privileged slob of an American.  I’m shocked he didn’t throw a Trump/Pence bumper sticker on the truck to complete the picture, but you can’t alienate your audience in the south or date yourself too much, ya know?  Anyway, Crowe is menacing enough and blusters his way through the 90-minute movie with an apt presence but little in the way of any character coloring.  Some blanks are filled in, but Cooper is mostly a mystery…which is probably the point.  As the object of his abject hate, Pistorius makes the most out of a role written to be a train wreck at the beginning and a full-on ten-car pile-up by the end.  At some point, you start to think her character must not know how to dial 911 because it takes her forever to make that call.  The rest of the cast is barely worth mentioning, though I’d like to state for the record Bateman looks and acts like another younger brother to Pistorius rather than her son.

I’ll be quite interested to see how audiences respond to Unhinged in this first weekend of screenings back and also how theaters in turn deal with new crowds at their theaters.  If there’s one thing to be thankful for, it’s that Unhinged is being marketed in a way that should keep families staying home and avoiding the temptation to haul young children out to see this terror-filled picture.  With this pandemic still an active concern, it’s not worth the risk of venturing into the theaters yet and Unhinged is absolutely not the one to take the chance on it with.

Movie Review ~ True History of the Kelly Gang


The Facts
:

Synopsis: An exploration of Australian bushranger Ned Kelly and his gang as they attempt to evade authorities during the 1870s.

Stars: George MacKay, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Orlando Schwerdt, Thomasin McKenzie, Sean Keenan, Charlie Hunnam, Russell Crowe

Director: Justin Kurzel

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Over the past years writing reviews for this blog, it’s been well-documented that I don’t always keep up with my history lessons but I have a feeling I could be forgiven for not being as up to date as I could be on the Australian outlaw Ned Kelly.  Though he’s a divisive figure in his native land, a folk hero to some and a murderous villain to others, he’s not as well-known here, only making his mark in various forms of media over the last century.  Though 2003’s Ned Kelly starred the late Heath Ledger as the titular character and featured Orlando Bloom as his right-hand man Joseph Byrne, it didn’t connect with audiences and wouldn’t rank high on either actor’s roster of credits.

While many historical records are available to put together a fairly accurate account of Kelly’s life starting in the rugged outback until his death at the end of a hangman’s noose before he turned 30, director Jed Kurzel (Macbeth) takes a different, more controversial approach to his telling.  Working with screenwriter Shaun Grant, he’s adapted Peter Carey’s celebrated 2000 novel True History of the Kelly Gang which is largely (and proudly) a work of make-believe that mostly follows Kelly’s life but takes certain liberties along the way.  The novel created a ruckus from Kelly naysayers who were dismayed another work glorifying his crimes became so popular and enticed others open to the history books being cleverly reworked.

The resulting film Kurzel has made from this work is having the same effect and that almost instantly makes it something to seek out so you can decide for yourself.  Here is a bold movie that shouldn’t be taken as the final word on anything Kelly related, especially because it says from the beginning that none of what audiences are about to see is true.  Instead, it invites the viewer to ponder how the story could unfold if the man himself were sitting in front of you telling it.  What would he leave out?  What would he embellish?

Life for the Kelly clan was rough in the barren outback of the 1860’s.  After his father is sent to a dredge of a prison, his mother Ellen (Essie Davis, The Babadook) establishes herself as a bootlegger willing to do anything to keep her family with food on the table.  Eventually, she goes so far as selling off her eldest son Ned (played as a youngster by Orlando Schwerdt) to bushranger Harry Power (Russell Crowe, Boy Erased) in the hopes he could learn his thieving ways.  Horrified both by his mother’s betrayal and Power’s wicked bloodlust, Ned returns briefly before entering jail himself.  As an adult, the brash Ned (George MacKay, How I Live Now) runs with a smaller crowd that includes Joe (Sean Keenan), doing what they can to stay away from the long arm of the law.

When Ned is introduced to Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies), a friendship that might have helped him turn his life around winds up sending him in the other direction when both men show they are unable to fully divest themselves from their convictions and their past.  This sets the stage for the film’s final act, sending Ned on the run with his “Kelly Gang” that leaves a trail of violence and bloody bodies in their wake.  When Ellen is jailed and Ned decides to stage a grand scale escape for his mother, it gives way to a final confrontation between the Kellys and the policemen that becomes the stuff of legend.

Plenty of movies about history have been given a modern edge with a little rock and roll twist but Kurzel finds a viscerally pleasing way of juxtaposing the luxe with the rough.  At times, the costuming and music give the feel of a movie taking place a century or more later, yet the movie never feels like it’s pawing at a theme it can’t follow through on.  As he’s shown in previous films, Kurzel has an eye for scale and he gives viewers some excellent scans of the burnt out landscape the Kellys call home as well as the more tony living of the upper crust.  Though the technique starts to overwhelm the film near the end, with the final confrontation become a bit of a headache inducing mess – the lead-up to it is pretty invigorating and chilling.  Kurzel also isn’t shy about showing copious amounts of violence, there’s enough blood and guts tossed about in the movie for several horror films yet it somehow still felt like it was authentic to the story being told.  Were the director to pump the brakes in these moments, it would feel like he was cheating so in that sense I appreciated he didn’t spare us these stomach churning sequences.

Where the movie truly excels are the performances.  Nearly landing an Oscar nomination for his work in 1917, MacKay follows it up with a commanding performance as Kelly that hits all the right notes.  He gives the character a humanity, yet doesn’t make him sympathetic at the same time.  That’s a hard line to draw because where folk heroes are concerned there is a tendency to try to overly humanize them just to make them likable…MacKay nicely walks the thin tightrope by just making him human.  The showstopper is Davis as his scheming mother, though.  In a truly remarkable performance, Davis (who is married to Kurzel) makes Ellen so resolutely devoted to her family that she’s willing to destroy everything else that gets in their way…even if it means sacrificing her other children.  This is the stuff Oscar nominations were made for.  Crowe and Hoult are strong, too, as are Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit) as a love interest for Ned the author has created for effect, and Charlie Hunnam (Pacific Rim), as the first lawman Ned has to face head on.

Not going to lie, this is a tough blister of a movie but it’s worth your time if you are into these visually arresting skewed history lessons.  The performances are first rate and the production design seemed to always be keeping me on my toes.  It’s unpredictable in a way that historical dramas just aren’t crafted to be – and how fun is that?

Movie Review ~ Boy Erased


The Facts
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Synopsis: The son of a Baptist preacher is forced to participate in a church-supported gay conversion program after being forcibly outed to his parents.

Stars: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton, Xavier Dolan, Troye Sivan, Joe Alwyn

Director: Joel Edgerton

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Based on the 2016 memoir from Garrard Conley, Boy Erased is not the first film in 2018 to tackle the tough subject of gay conversion therapy.  Sundance hit The Miseducation of Cameron Post came out in late summer and featured a similar storyline of a gay teenager sent by their parents to a religious based program orchestrated to “convert” LGBTQ youth to live lives as “straight” people.  I haven’t seen The Miseducation of Cameron Post yet but have a feeling I would have emerged from that screening much like I did from Boy Erased: sad, frustrated, angry.

After a long internal struggle Jared (Lucas Hedges, Ben is Back) has recently admitted to his parents that he has feelings toward men. His father (Russell Crowe, The Water Diviner) is a preacher in Arkansas and obviously this news isn’t received with much compassion or understanding.  Told he can either leave his home and job or go to a program to help cure him of these impure thoughts, he’s half-heartedly agreed to the latter and has been sent to a program called Love in Action, a gay conversion therapy assessment in Texas. Accompanied by his mother (Nicole Kidman, The Killing of a Sacred Deer), Jared will spend 12 days being evaluated by the staff along with other youths facing similar ultimatums.

At first, it seems like this is something Jared might actually have put some faith in.  He clearly feels what he feels but also knows that to be gay would change his relationship with his parents forever.  When the director of the program (Joel Edgerton, Midnight Special, who also adapted the Conley’s book and directed) starts to implement the teachings in increasingly destructive ways, Jared questions which life would be worse?  Living his true self and having the chance at happiness, or continuing to lie to everyone for the sake of his family.

There’s a lot of tricky terrain to navigate here but Edgerton keeps the material nicely above pithy melodrama by encouraging his talented cast to lean back in their efforts as opposed to latching on to each emphatic moment/revelation along the way.  The performances come across as natural and even the Arkansas twangs are nicely muted (Kidman’s hair has the biggest drawl of all), creating an environment that sometimes feels documentary-like.  There are times when Edgerton skates the edge of hitting us over the head (literally) with his message but overall the subject matter is presented without much editorializing.

Conley’s true tale is one of solitary survival and that’s brought nicely to the screen by Hedges in a sensitive and nuanced performance.  The movie flashes back and forth from the present when Jared is entering the conversion program to an earlier time when he’s still in high school and then further forward as he moves into college.  We see the first time he gets close to opening up to someone and wince as he undergoes a traumatic encounter with a co-ed friend (Joe Alwyn, Mary Queen of Scots) we originally think will turn out much differently.  When his coming out story seems to be cruelly told for him, it’s a painfully tense moment as he desperately attempts to find yet another way to cover up his dark secret.

As Jared’s parents, Australian mates Kidman and Crowe nicely play two sides of the religious coin.  Both love their son but one has a much more difficult journey in the path to acceptance.  Hedges shares wonderful scenes with both but it’s an exchange with Crowe late in the film that allows both characters to exorcise some long-standing issues in a most powerful way.  Crowe doesn’t have to do much but listen to Hedges but he conveys so much with his eyes and posture that he takes us on a mini-journey of the spirit in several minutes.  As in life, Edgerton doesn’t have his characters change overnight but instead he presents building blocks for a bridge between two opposing sides and lets the audience come along as the people build a pathway to understanding.

Like Beautiful Boy also released in 2018, Boy Erased is as much a look at the parents as it is about the children but in the end I found Boy Erased to be a more relatable film.  Whereas in Beautiful Boy the character at the center of the family drama was making a choice to continue in a life that was proving destructive, Boy Erased’s Jared had no choice in how he came into this world.  His journey to discovery felt more authentic and, in the end, cathartic to this viewer.

 

Rare Soap Box Moment: If you are gay or know someone that has struggled with being gay this movie will likely prove maddening.  How these types of programs are allowed to exist and are supported in numerous states is a terrible thing.  Knowing many of these have no basis in scientific fact and are still covered by health insurance is even worse.  Legislation needs to be in place to remove these programs from receiving any kind of substantiation in the medical or psychiatric because they are selling a false promise to people Being gay is not a choice but something you are born as.  No amount of therapy, prayer, or government funded programming can change that.

Movie Review ~ The Mummy (2017)

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: An ancient princess is awakened from her crypt beneath the desert, bringing with her malevolence grown over millennia, and terrors that defy human comprehension.

Stars: Tom Cruise, Sofia Boutella, Annabelle Wallis, Jake Johnson, Courtney B. Vance, Russell Crowe

Director: Alex Kurtzman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 110 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

Review: You’re going to hear from a lot of people that The Mummy, Universal’s first entry in their new Dark Universe franchise, is a baffling bomb.  Those people aren’t totally wrong but they’re not completely off the mark either.  The worst thing a movie can be is neither good nor bad but just mediocre and too much of this new take on The Mummy straddles that fence, stubbornly refusing to slump into schlock or get its ass into a higher-quality gear.  It’s not a total wash but the potential was there to take a fun step forward and the studio is too, uh, wrapped up in their quest for a new charter film series that they’ve lost sight of the here and the now.

As most of these creature-features often do, The Mummy opens with a little history lesson concerning an ambitious Egyptian princess (Sofia Boutella, Kingsman: The Secret Service) seduced by evil forces that promise her eternal life.  Clearing her way to the throne in a bloody rampage, she’s eventually captured and buried alive in a deluxe sarcophagus within an ultra-complex underground prison.  Remaining hidden for thousands of years, she’s unearthed by two unscrupulous soldiers (Tom Cruise, Oblivion and Jake Johnson, Safety Not Guaranteed) looking for antiquities to sell on the black market in modern day Iraq.  Once released from her prison, she wastes little time in bringing down a plane transporting her to London and proceeding to suck the life out of anyone that gets in her way, turning them into the walking dead for good measure.  It’s up to Cruise and a pretty prehistorian (Annabelle Wallis, Annabelle) to end the madness, a task made more difficult when our Mummy Princess sets her sights on making Cruise her eternal mate.

The framework of plot supplied by a screenplay written by David Koepp (Jurassic Park), Christopher McQuarrie (Edge of Tomorrow), and Dylan Kussman (Flight) has potential to it but director Alex Kurtzman (People Like Us) never fully trusts the material, opting instead to let Cruise take up too much space and pushing others to the sidelines.  Let’s not forget that in addition to the above brief outline, Cruise is introduced to the Prodigium, a secret group dedicated to hunting supernatural baddies and beasties.  Led by Dr. Henry Jekyll (yep, the one and only), look closely during a visit to Prodigium’s lab for a few familiar creatures that may pop up in future Dark Universe entries.

I get the feeling that when the script for The Mummy was sent to Cruise, it was with the intent he consider taking on Dr. Jekyll (played here by a twinkle-eyed Russell Crowe, The Water Diviner) but Cruise missed the memo and just assumed he’d be the lead.  Clearly written for a younger actor, everyone in the film at one time or another looks at Cruise (who’s still in fine shape and loves a good stunt sequence) and clearly is thinking, “You’re too old for this role!”  His chemistry with both of his leading ladies is strained and it becomes the Cruise show the moment he arrives onscreen with the titular character taking a frustrating back-seat to the A-list star.

Crowe seems keen on having some fun and while his storyline could be excised from the film entirely, he at least has the right idea of what his contributions are.  Knowing that Universal plans to craft a new franchise from their Stable of Scary, I wonder if the whole Prodigium business was folded in late in the game to tee up the Dark Universe.  Poor Wallis has a role that is entirely exposition, I don’t think she’s given one line that isn’t specifically meant to explain or clarify so the performance feels like the appendix it was written to be.  The true star here is Boutella and whenever she’s onscreen the film starts to crackle and pop only to be muffled by Cruise’s overbearing presence.  I like Cruise quite a lot but even I must admit he’s been given too much room to play.

Amidst a bunch of hokum happenings and a screenplay that’s pretty pokey, there are a handful of slick moments of fun that hint at what the movie could have been had it found a better focus.  A mid-air disaster is staged with edge-of-your-seat excitement and an underwater chase managed to make me hold my breath as Cruise and Wallis try to outswim a horde of the undead.  Being released in 2D and 3D formats, I caught it in 3D and since so much of the film is set at night or in dark underground lairs I’d advise going for a 2D screening which might produce clearer visuals.

There’s nothing I look forward to more than a good old-fashioned monster movie.  I don’t need flashy special effects or 3D gimmickry to get on board, just give me a good creature, a decent plot, and invested performances and I’m happy.  While Universal’s reboot of The Mummy doesn’t consistently hit any of the above specifications, it grazes them long enough to produce a somewhat enjoyable but ultimately misguided first step into a new franchise involving their classic catalog of monsters.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Mummy (2017)

mummy

Synopsis: An ancient princess is awakened from her crypt beneath the desert bringing with her malevolence grown over millennia and terrors that defy human comprehension.

Release Date: June 9, 2017

Thoughts: If you didn’t know any better, the first few moments of this first look at Universal’s 2017 reboot of The Mummy may feel like you’ve fallen into another Mission: Impossible entry.  There’s Tom Cruise looking quite Cruise-ish in a cargo plane carrying the remains of an ancient princess.  Before they can even get through customs (or land the aircraft) trouble brews with Cruise (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back) winding up in a body bag.  What’s so nice about this thrilling teaser is that is leaves you with more questions than answers.  Where the 1932 original was a classic horror, its 1999 reboot owed more to Indiana Jones than to its source material.  This new take on The Mummy, however, looks to blend the best of previous incarnations.  With Russell Crowe (The Water Diviner) and Annabelle Wallis (Annabelle) along for the adventure under the direction of Alex Kurtzman (People Like Us), look for this one to be unwrapped in a prime summer slot.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Nice Guys

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Synopsis: A private eye investigates the apparent suicide of a fading porn star in 1970s Los Angeles and uncovers a conspiracy.

Release Date: May 20, 2016

Thoughts: Nearly twenty years since they appeared together in the Los Angeles set noir classic, L.A. Confidential, Russell Crowe and Kim Basinger (who nabbed an Oscar for her work) are back on screen for another mystery set in the famed city.  Looking like a wise-ass mix of L.A. Confidential and (gulp) 2014’s Inherent Vice, The Nice Guys might be the shot of adrenaline Crowe needs after a string of badly reviewed performances/movies (his singing in Les Miserables, Winter’s Tale, Noah, and my worst film of 2015, The Water Diviner).  Teamed with the always interesting Ryan Gosling (The Big Short), Crowe looks pretty perfect for the gruff tough guy tasked with finding Basinger’s daughter whose disappearance might be related to a murder private-eye Gosling is investigating.  From Shane Black (Iron Man 3), I’m pulling for this early summer release to be dark fun in the California sun.

Movie Review ~ The Water Diviner

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An Australian man travels to Turkey after the Battle of Gallipoli to try and locate his three missing sons.

Stars: Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko, Jai Courtney, Steve Bastoni, Ryan Corr, Yilmaz Erdogan, Cem Yilmaz

Director: Russell Crowe

Rated: R

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: There’s a moment in Ron Howard’s 1995 space drama Apollo 13 where, in trying to find a solution to the problem the stranded astronauts are facing, NASA technicians dump boxes of equipment onto a table and one of them says “We’ve got to find a way to make this fit into the hole for this using nothing but that.” I mention this particular scene because it kept playing through my mind while watching director/star Russell Crowe’s tedious drama, The Water Diviner.

Poor Matt Villa. As the editor for this missed opportunity of a film I can imagine Crowe depositing the dailies on his desk and commanding Villa craft a movie out of Crowe’s lugubrious and bloviating   historical shoulda-been-better epic. It’s not like Villa couldn’t do it…this is the guy that brought some sense of order to Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby in 2013 so I can only place the blame squarely at Crowe’s hulking feet and a narrative-less script form two Andrews (Knight and Anastasios).

I’d purposely avoided watching any trailers for The Water Diviner because as of late movie previews in general seem to favor more spoilers than ever before but I was interested to see what Crowe would do with the true-ish story of a man from Down Under that travels to Turkey and the post-wartime shores of Gallipoli as he searches for his enlisted sons he believes are dead. There’s a good movie at the heart of The Water Diviner, which makes it doubly depressing that it’s such a clumsy and yawn-inducing affair.

Running under two hours but feeling three times as long, Crowe doesn’t bother with any kind of character introductions…which is all well and good until full understanding of the characters becomes a necessity to figure out what the hell is going on. Though the three sons play a pivotal role in the latter half of the film and it’s clear we’re supposed to feel some sort of fatherly bond that drives Crowe’s character to follow his quest, there’s precious little onscreen that gives us any indication why we should be invested in Crowe getting the answers he came for.

There’s a lot of sand and dust to trek through and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (an Oscar winner for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring) captures the period setting nicely…until Crowe revs up the action and it appears Lesnie tied the camera to the end of a string and started lasso-ing it above the heads of the actors. Production design is generally spot-on, from Tess Schofield’s (The Sapphires) costumes to David Hirschfelder’s tonally observant score.

If only the script and performances had matched the art direction. Crowe (Noah, Man of Steel) never met a character he couldn’t grunt through but he seems particularly lost at sea here. Perhaps pulling double duty left his character development as an afterthought, but you’d be hard pressed to remember that this guy won an Oscar and has been nominated for two more. For a man that’s worked with some of the best directors in Hollywood and abroad, it’s truly amazing how little craft is displayed as both director and actor of The Water Diviner. This had the potential to be an epic drama but just winds up being epically boring.

That’s really the main problem with the film…it’s so surreally uninteresting that I was gob smacked to read that it won Australia’s equivalent of Best Picture (well, it tied with The Babadook) and netted a host of nominations. I chalk it up to hometown devotion for Crowe but it’s quite undeserved. I feel for talented actors like Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace), Jai Courtney (Jack Reacher), and an impressive Yilmaz Erdogan who are saddled with thankless roles. Kurylenko in particular should have just worn a sign around her neck that says “Obligatory Feisty Female Character Desisted to be a Random Love Interest in 5…4…3…2…1” for her cliché-ridden role.

The film is all over the map. One moment it’s like an Aussie spin on Saving Private Ryan and the next it’s Zero Dark Thirty Down Under before incredulously turning into a Casablanca no one asked for. Near the end of the film there’s a bonkers scene where Crowe teaches his would-be adversaries the rules of cricket in a rusty old train car minutes before a slaughter erupts and Crowe has only, you guessed it, a cricket mallet to defend himself. Then there’s the scene where Crowe magically locates a grave he couldn’t possibly know was there…sure he’s a water diviner (a gift shown in the first five minutes and never mentioned again) but now he’s a body diviner? Gulp. Next please.

A movie that thinks so highly of itself it doesn’t make any effort to explain, well, anything is one that is ultimately hard to swallow and should be discarded. So many things in The Water Diviner just happen “because” that it all begins to wash over you and renders you numb by the time the credits blessedly appear. I even hated the font used for the titles and subtitles…

Movie Review ~ Noah

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A man is chosen by God to undertake a momentous mission of rescue before an apocalyptic flood destroys the world.

Stars: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Emma Watson, Anthony Hopkins, Logan Lerman, Nick Nolte

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 139 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: With the recent religious releases Son of God and God is Not Dead! doing surprisingly good box office business, I’m sure the studio heads at Paramount were breathing a tad easier as the release date for Noah crept ever closer. Buzz had been that the execs weren’t very confident in director Darren Aronofsky’s cut of the film so they screened several of their own versions to audiences to gauge their reaction. In the end the director’s cut won out, leaving me to wonder how bad the other edited versions were.

Honestly, I don’t think it matters much which version ended up being released because the whole film is such a meaty hunk of expired baloney that it may not have been salvageable in any form.

It’s hard to know exactly how to take Aronofsky’s Noah. Most people plunking down coin to see the epic will be expecting a re-telling of the Old Testament story about a man, an ark, and lots of animals trotting up two by two to avoid a massive flood that will wipe out civilization. What these people won’t be expecting, however, is a bloody and violent film featuring formerly A-list stars playing infuriatingly stubborn people that you wouldn’t want to spend 40 minutes on a boat with, let alone 40 days in torrential rain.

After a brief opening that covers the first few passages of the Bible, the film goes its own way by introducing mystical snake skins and stone creatures that one minute want to destroy man and the next are helping Noah and his brood build the ark. Looking like castoffs from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, these iff-ily rendered creatures supposedly are fallen angels encased in rock after they landed on earth in a fiery storm.

The threat of the destruction of civilization isn’t enough, though, so Aronofsky and co-screenwriter Ari Handel throw in another villain of the human kind in the form of a descendent of Cain. More extraneously inconsequential than interesting and played by the gruff Ray Winstone (Snow White and the Huntsman) as if his life depended on it, the character falls into high camp early on when we see his flowing locks of blonde hair that would make Rapunzel drool.

With about 50 minutes of actual material to work with, the film is stretched to a punishing 139 minutes by including lots of grandiose speechifying from nearly every main character…almost as if they had it in their contracts to be given their moment to shine. So we get lots of introspective musings and preachy pontificating on man’s inhumanity to man. Not wholly or outwardly religious, the film tries to make the issue of a wicked society not so much a Biblical idea but a atheistic one.

I’ve been a fan of Aronofsky’s work for a while now, though the only film of his I can bring myself to revisit is Black Swan, his brilliant psychological drama from 2010 that won Natalie Portman an Oscar. That film was a hallucinatory and riveting journey into madness and though Aronofsky tries to get inside the head of Noah in a similar fashion, it doesn’t the same effect.

Though he may have made a good Noah on paper, Russell Crowe (Man of Steel) seems so out of touch with the kind of roles he should be playing that it’s becoming pretty fascinating to see the jobs he’s taking on. For my money, he should have played Winstone’s part and let someone like Michael Fassbender or Christian Bale (both were offered the role and declined) have the role. Aronofsky has imagined Noah as so devout to his Creator that he is willing to do horrible things…and something about Crowe’s wild-eyed approach comes across more zealot than pious.

Co-starring with Crowe for the second time in 2014 (the first being February’s lame-o Winter’s Tale), Jennifer Connelly makes some headway with her underwritten role, though it comes late in the game with an impassioned speech that leaves her face awash with tears and snot. With her hair never much out of place and her teeth gleaming white (Noah’s family clearly had a good dental plan), Connelly brings a kind of precision to the role that works in her favor.

Another pair of co-stars re-united, The Perks of Being a Wallflower’s Emma Watson (The Bling Ring) and Logan Leerman are part of the Noah pack and while it’s appreciated that Watson continues to stretch her wings outside of the Harry Potter franchise, this role seems to get away from her. As the only other major female in the film, she delivers every important speech Connelly can’t be present to give herself.

Then there’s Anthony Hopkins (Hitchcock), getting an early start on his yearly cinematic appearance in the “grizzled old man” role…this time playing Methuselah, Noah’s grandfather. I’m not sure Hopkins even reads his scripts anymore before signing on to a film because the Oscar winning actor has little to do but pass along useful information when needed. The animal stars of the show are entirely CGI and factor in very little to the overall scheme of things.

Visually, the film looks great in typical Aronofsky fashion. Shot in Iceland, the cinematography from Matthew Libatique (Iron Man 2) is stunning and is aided by a strong sound design layered nicely in with Clint Mansell’s (Stoker) rich score. Of particular interest is a five minute sequence halfway through the film where Crowe narrates the Genesis story, brought to life in stunning fashion. I’d recommend seeing the film (eventually when you can fast-forward it) for that segment alone.

So what’s my problem with the film? I’m not a Bible thumper or Sunday School devotee that had to have everything in perfect order and sticking to just the facts, jack. No, I’d have been totally on board with the film Aronofsky was trying to make…if I could just grasp what film that was. Though the filmmakers can suggest all day long that their goal was to keep the film non time-specific, the costume design suggests post-apolopytic, not B.C. chic.

For as visually and aurally pleasing as the movie most certainly is, the perils depicted are incredibly unpleasant to sit through. The last 20 minutes are particularly rough going and even for this habitual watch checker, I started feeling like time was going backward rather than inching closer to the end credits.

Had this film been called, say, Bernard or Jethro I think I would have been able to take it with a finer grain of salt. Slapping Noah on the film and then turning the story into a Middle Earth meets Waterworld soggy epic robs the film of its voice and robs the audience of $10. I still like Aronofsky and applaud him for having the balls to do what he’s done here…but I feel like I want to throw the Good Book at him.

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Movie Review ~ Winter’s Tale

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A burglar falls for an heiress as she dies in his arms. When he learns that he has the gift of reincarnation, he sets out to save her

Stars: Colin Farrell, Jessica Brown Findlay, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt, Eva Marie Saint, Russell Crowe, Ripley Sobo, Mckayla Twiggs

Director: Akiva Goldsman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 118 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: Oscar nominated director Martin Scorsese (Hugo, The Wolf of Wall Street, Cape Fear) isn’t known to shy away from many projects.  This is a man, after all, that took a novel like Shutter Island which was considered to be impossible to adapt for the screen and made a perfectly good (if strikingly literal) thriller out of it.  So you should pay attention when you hear that Scorsese flirted briefly with bringing Winter’s Tale, Mark Helperin’s 1983 fantasy novel, to life only to abandon the project because he couldn’t figure out a way to make it work.

The project then fell into the hands of Akiva Goldsman, the Oscar winning screenwriter of A Beautiful Mind who took on the work as a passion project.  Laboring for years to have his screenplay produced, he finally found himself in the director’s chair surrounding by a fairly impressive cast and a celebrated production team.  How, then, can the final product be so remarkably terrible?

Well…I’ll direct you back to Mr. Scorsese who had the correct premonition that this time jumping epic love story wasn’t destined to be captured on film.  It existed best in the yellowing pages of paperback copies of Helperin’s novel stuffed away on bookshelves waiting for their owners to thumb through them in the doldrums of these wintery months.

My experience with the book is limited, having paged through it a few times over the years but never being sucked in by its storied charms.  It’s essentially a bit of romantic whimsy with prose that helped inspire some imagination of the people, places, and flights of fancy Helperin laid out.  I can’t speak to how close Goldsman’s adaptation sticks to the source but I know that something was absolutely lost in translation.

Opening with a prologue filmed in lovely sepia tones by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (Killer Joe, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Jack Reacher), the story begins in the late 19th century with Polish immigrants denied entrance to America who wind up lowering their infant son in a model boat in the hopes that the harsh waters will see him safely to the shores of New York.  Ah…the American Dream!  Flash forward years later and the orphaned boy is now Peter Lake (Colin Farrell, Saving Mr. Banks, Dead Man Down), a burglar on the wrong side of gangster and former father figure Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe, Les Miserables, Man of Steel) ready to make an escape out of the city.

Before he can reach the city limits, however, he happens to make one last burglary in the stately Penn home where he meets Beverly (Jessica Brown-Findlay, Downton Abbey), a doomed beauty suffering from consumption with a fever so bad she sleeps on the wintery roof to keep her temperature down.  Love blooms (not naturally because Farrell and Brown-Findlay have precious little chemistry) and soon Peter and Beverly are overcome with passion that leads to a bad end.  Oh…did I mention the film has angels, demons, flying horses, and mythical prophecies?  Well…there’s that too.

I’m giving you more of the plot than I normally would because it helps set the stage for the next act of the film which takes such a peculiar leap forward that you wonder if you aren’t watching a three part mini-series that forgot to include the second installment.  So much of the film takes place in establishing the past that next to no time is left to explore anything in present day New York.  The third act is comprised then of extraordinary coincidences, unexplained lapses in continuity, and half-developed characters (like the one poor Jennifer Connelly is stuck with) culminating in a cornball ending more laughable than the emotionally resonant one the filmmakers intended.

Farrell makes for an engaging lead, though his lack of chemistry with his leading lady and the oddity of his American born/raised character having a perfect Irish accent leaves more of a lasting impression than any good will his commitment earns him.  Crowe is particularly terrible here with his awful leprechaun-y brogue…his scenes with a surprise cameo (and equally atrocious) star is sure to haunt him in years to come.  Brown-Findlay doesn’t leave much of an impression aside from the realization that her narration of the film is better than her onscreen performance.  William Hurt (The Host), Connelly (who will also do time with Crowe soon in Noah), and Eva Marie Saint (make sure to do the math of her screen age when she shows up and see if you cry foul) round out the players.

Running close to two hours I will say that as banal as the film is, it managed to move along with a nice clip.  Goldsman rallies the production design to create a handsome looking film (even with one of the worst Hans Zimmer scores ever) though he lets the whole schmaltzy mess get away from him almost from the start.  If you’re thinking of catching this with a loved one, I’d suggest taking a walk around the block holding hands instead.