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3 stars

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Very, very long (6 hours in total for the two films), but not altogether terrible and without giving anything away, at least they put some bodies on the block, thus limiting later franchise movies solely to origin stories.  Quippy, and visually much more satisfying than a lot of these movies.  Also, Thor in a fat suit is pretty funny, and melding The Hulk and Bruce Banner (now, he can wear the right size pants all the time)?  Inspired.

Still, when all is said and done, the whole things turns on Superman reverse circling the earth to go back in time.  They just couldn’t use him because he’s not a Marvel character.  Also, the concept for the second film is the same as HBO’s The Leftovers.

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The first half of this Tarantinoesque Key Largo is pretty good.  Four strangers (Jon Hamm, Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo and Dakota Johnson) show up at a past-its-prime, resort hotel in the Nevada/California mountains, the kind of place where Sammy, Judy and Frank might have swung back in the day.  They all have a story, which we learn in flashbacks, some of which are more compelling than others.  Their destinies collide explosively.

I was worried the film would be too kitschy and cool, too mannered, but it manages to keep a lid on it for long enough to be engaging.  Other problems keep it from being unequivocally good.  For one, Dakota Johnson barely even registers.  She’s undeniably attractive but as a shotgun-toting Alabaman on the run from her better looking Charles Manson (Chris Hemsworth), she’s as convincing as Melania Trump.   Worse, Hemsworth tries to chew scenery, but the best he can do is ape Val Kilmer in The Doors (I guess all Svengalis from the late 60s had that lizard lope).  To cement his powers of persuasion, we get a flashback to Hemsworth preaching to his hippie flock, and let’s just say, he’s more Jim Nabors than Jones or Morrison.

Erivo is very good, but she’s a singer as a character and in real life.  Writer-director Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods) feels compelled to have her perpetually employing the pipes, an unnecessary distraction.

On HBO.  Fine if you got nothing else going on.

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The subject of free soloing (climbing sheer face of rock with no rope) is compelling, more so for me because I didn’t even know it was a thing until I saw this movie.  You travel with Alex Sonnold as he attempts the greatest climb of his life, the 900 meter El Capitan in Yellowstone, which seems particularly reckless in that he’s just weeks off a sprained ankle.

The climb is gripping. The psychological portrait of the climber less so. He appears to be a bit disassociative, almost numb, which lessens your investment in him.  For example, he has the cutest damn girlfriend you’ve ever seen, and she’s clearly crazy about him. As such, his risks in the face of such riches would seem casually cruel if he weren’t a bit of a deadened weirdo.

Indeed, the film is about Alex doing something that may well kill him (free soloists die pretty regularly) and voluntarily having it filmed.   The pre-bout navel-gazing (his family never hugged or used the word “love”) and awkward, searching exchanges with his documentarians feel like artificial injections to elicit empathy. They are only so effective.

Would this be tolerable if he was more human, more flesh and bone?  Should that matter?  Should I feel bad that the movie feels long when it has offered me a “he lives or he dies” finale?

My ethical quandaries aside,  watch this on the biggest TV you have.  The visuals are stunning and the achievement monumental.

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This is a confounding but worthwhile picture.  It tries to be many things.   A heist caper.  A feminist tract.  A racial observance.  A cynical statement on corruption.  A twist flick.  It fails to be complete in any of these pursuits, but that doesn’t make it unenjoyable, just vexing.

Steve McQueen (Shame, Twelve Years of Slave) brings his meditative touch to Chicago, where the widows of a group of professional criminals (think the gang in Heat; in fact, the widows pick up a driver on the fly just like in that flick) must pick up where their flawed husbands have left off.  Their pursuit is intertwined with romantic, political, and familial entanglements.

There’s a lot here, but eventually, the film falters because it takes on way too much.  This is a mini-series sized saga, and given how well McQueen does with various scenes, you’re eventually frustrated at the truncated resolutions.  Still, the performances are stellar.  In particular, Viola Davis, even saddled with an ever-present and ridiculous West Highland White Terrier, is penetrating, and as villains go, Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) is a top ten.

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I assume this is based on a video game. If not, it has the haphazard feel of one and the banal dialogue sounds like what video characters might say. There are also times when you wish you could hit reset given its hackneyed aspects (stock Italian goomba rifleman, erudite and aristocratic Nazi officer heavy,  soldier revealing post-war plans right before . . .)

But this story of a WWII paratroop unit dropping behind enemy lines only to find that the Nazis are – can you believe it? – engaged in medical experimentation to create an uber soldier is competent with a fun B movie feel. And occasionally, it is even a little scary.  Entirely worth the $1.87 Redbox rental.

One other positive note. The lead and the tough guy sergeant are African-American, which, given that integration of the troops didn’t occur until after the war, is an anomaly. However, since race has absolutely nothing to do with this middling popcorn flick, it’s a welcome development. Sure, there are no black Nazis, but all in good time.

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A filmmaker who can communicate his vision entirely is a rare thing, even if the vision is too reliant on cruelty.  Yorgos Lamthinos’s The Lobster was as original as it gets, but also sterile, unfeeling and kind of unpleasant.

The Favourite is more traditional than the futuristic The Lobster, a period piece of court intrigue, but it shares its iciness. Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone vie for the attentions and favor of Queen Anne. Weisz wants power, Stone security. Their war has its moments, particularly, a biting sense of humor that reveals itself now and again.  They also share a weary, dim view of their male dominated world; the men are for the most part fops, suck-ups, and/or brutes, and it is amusing to watch Weisz and Stone endure them.  Yet, their single-minded pursuit of the upper hand is solely rooted in the base instincts of survival, so it’s hard to gin up any empathy. You’re detached from their fates, and the accompanying pain.  They flash as human, but they don’t really seem it.

The performances are stellar.  Olivia Coleman’s turn as the mercurial and insecure queen, for which she won the Oscar, is a masterful blend of the sympathetic and comic. She is the ultimate tormentor, but ironically, she’s the only one you feel bad for.

It’s a technically adept yet cold and un-involving picture.  Lamthinos (who reminds me of Darren Aronofsky in his penchant for brutalization) also has a morbid fascination with bodily functions, which doesn’t help.

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I loved Ex Machina but Alex Garland’s follow-up falls short.  Given the film’s ambition, however, it is a noble failure.  Natalie Portman is an ex-military, now-professor whose Special Ops boyfriend (Oscar Isaac) goes missing after a clandestine mission.  When he returns, in very bad shape, she is drawn to the mission herself, and soon finds herself part of a five person team entering “The Shimmer”, a disorienting, disturbing, inexorably expanding mass of acreage that started when something from the sky hit the ground.  As the team enters to get to the source, they are transformed by their environment, and I’ll leave it at that.

It’s pretty damn cool.  But ultimately, Garland relies so much on the visual for his message that the picture serves as more of an aesthetic treat than a compelling story.  The ideas are boffo, but the execution is a bit dreary and drawn out, and frankly, like Arrival, this film may just be over my head.

There are other problems.  Portman’s harkening back to her transgressions in her relationship with Isaac seems silly given the gravity of her situation.  I was reminded of a stupid movie I saw years back about a group of gals who decided to have a bachelorette weekend spelunking, as most women do, and as hideous mole people chased them through caves, the fact that one of the women slept with the fiancée of another actually loomed large.  “Okay, okay.  I slept with your boyfriend.  Not cool.  Now, can we get back to the mole people?”

One last note – I’m down with 5 women on a military/scientific exercise, but one should be aware of the Ghostbusters re-make and maybe switch up the uniforms.  I half expected

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to show up.

On Hulu now.