Wednesday, June 14, 2017

47 Meters Down Review (2017)

Listen, if you’re stuck in a shark cage at the bottom of the ocean and your oxygen is slowly running out and large, menacing sharks are lurking in the area looking for a snack but you’re also able to have a schmaltzy heart to heart (we’re talking about a full on conversation here) with your sister, then your predicament isn’t nearly as dire as it should be.

Yet, that’s the scenario Lisa (Mandy Moore) and her sister Kate (Claire Holt) find themselves in in Johannes Roberts “47 Meters Down.” The submarine heart to heart is a glaringly awful mid movie moment—an unnecessary attempt to strengthen the sisters’ bond that brings the action to an abrupt halt, spoiling any sense of tension that had been building up before hand. “47 Meters” down is a silly, occasionally exciting survival thriller that gets bogged down by its “human” drama.

The first ten minutes of the picture, pre shark tank, are painful. Lisa and Kate are vacationing in Mexico because Lisa’s boyfriend Stewart (unseen) has recently left her, saying she’s too “boring” for him. Lisa hopes to prove him wrong on this trip. What a lousy, slightly reductive set up; of all the ways you could get a pair of vacationers stranded in a shark cage, “47 Meters Down” picks the one that involves trying to impress a jerk ex boyfriend. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the “getting-over-an-ex” stuff was introduced and quickly dropped but everything Claire and Lisa do in the beginning is prefaced with “this will make Stewart jealous!” including going out on a dilapidated boat and climbing inside a rusty shark cage. That’ll show him!

Roberts and co screenwriter Ernest Riera stress this trite exposition more than they need to, culminating in that momentum stopping underwater one on one, where the sisters talk about Stewart some more and Lisa admits that she’s always been jealous of Claire’s more adventurous, impulsive life and blah blah blah. They’re already trying to survive being forty-seven meters under water, you don’t need them to stop and have a cheesy conversation to make you sympathize with them more. These silly human problems are supposed to be minor in comparison to the intense life or death situation there in.

 As a pure survival thriller, “47 Meters Down” yields a handful of tensely staged, claustrophobic underwater scenes. And to his credit, Roberts uses the sharks sparingly and effectively—relying more on suspense and impending doom rather than gore. However, even the tensest underwater scenes are undercut by too much talking. There’s far too much screaming and characters restating the obvious; it’s the same problem “Gravity” faced but ten times worse. The script is full of terribly cheesy lines of dialogue, delivered in a laughably stilted manner. “I’m so scared!” Lisa yells at one point. Oh, really?

At another point, after venturing outside the cage, Lisa makes her way to the edge of an underwater cliff, with nothing but spine tingling darkness below her. Okay, that’s pretty scary. You know how to make it not very scary? Have Lisa exclaim: “I can’t see what’s below me!” a few seconds later. All this chatting spoils the mood; it would have been better to let the quiet, ominous hum of the ocean dominate the soundtrack, along with muffled screams and the sounds of shark jaws chomping.

47 Meters” eventually breaks down beyond repair when it relies on an act of cinematic deception late in the third act (think “Last Temptation of Christ”) that, as a climax, feels cheap and unearned—an effort to make the film appear more intelligent than it really is.  Even worse, the deception is followed by an underwhelming and pretentiously dragged out resolution sequence.

The film ends with a whimper and we don’t even find out if Stewart was jealous of Lisa and Kate’s vacation. What kind of resolution is that!?


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Mummy Review (2017)

Do you like Tom Cruise? Are you a fan of watching the fifty four year old actor play lovably arrogant and charming? Do you love watching him run weird and do his own action stunts? Well, you’ll get all of that in Alex Kurtzman’s “The Mummy,” with an added dose of Cruise looking confused and zoning-out.

Cruise plays Nick Morton, a military operative who also steals treasure and prized artifacts from around the world to sell on the black market. While in Iraq he stumbles upon an ancient tomb belonging to disgraced Egyptian princess Ahmanent (Sofia Boutella). Ahmanent is furious, ready to wreak havoc on the world and plans on using Nick‘s body to bring Set, the Egyptian god of war, to life. Can Nick and ancient artifact protector Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) stop the vengeful princess? Not if Cruise keeps zoning out and looking confused.

Seriously, about fifty percent of Cruise’s performance is acting bewildered. Ahmanent penetrates Nick’s psyche, manipulating his behavior and freaking him out. Not a bad tactic, by the way. However, after about the fiftieth or sixtieth (only a slight exaggeration) close up of Cruise squinting his eyes in a daze, like he just took a long hit off a joint (as Ahamanent calls to him in a soft, seductive tone) you begin to silently groan from fatigue. We get it he’s under a curse. Perhaps if Cruise had more of a character to play, that we could be come emotionally invested in, I wouldn’t be so hung up on this. Sadly that’s not the case—Nick is the Cruise persona slapped onto a limp piece of cardboard and dipped in a vat of befuddlement.

In fact the film overall often resembles a limp piece of cardboard. It fluctuates between wildly over-the-top monster movie cheese and an excruciatingly dull, muddled action movie. The action itself is mostly underwhelming (a CGI sandstorm enveloping London, a plane crash scene that feels like a reject from a “Mission: Impossible” picture) while the screenplay by David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie and Dylan Kussman drowns from too much exposition.

From the first frame, when we’re given Ahament’s backstory via bland narration, to the end, when the movie’s themes and flaccid character arcs (Nick learns to be good and selfless instead of conceited!) are bluntly sounded out via bland voice over, every square inch of this movie is explained and explained again. The supporting characters are empty vessels to convey said exposition. Jenny should be a strong co lead but instead she’s reduced to a one note Ancient Egyptian encyclopedia and accessory to Cruise.

On top of that, the film is overstuffed and needlessly convoluted: Ahament is an Egyptian Princess who was buried in Mesopotamia, and the special dagger she needs to kill Nick and in turn summon Set was taken by Crusaders and buried in another ancient tomb under London. Just keep it in Egypt, okay? Making matters worse, the film has to take on the burden of setting up a brand new cinematic universe, which will involve all the classic Universal Studios monsters subtitled: Dark Universe. Yes, you read that right. This means the action comes to a halt midway through where we’re introduced to Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe, having a ball) who runs a shadowy organization that specializes in investigating monsters. Needlessly convoluted, a brand new cinematic universe being teased (in the vein of Marvel or DC) and aggressive spoon-feeding--Is that the cinematic equivalent of hell?

Thankfully, the picture never takes itself seriously in the least. It eschews any kind of terror or tension in favor of sheer loopiness. We’re talking about Tom Cruise making out with gross mummies, fighting Crusader mummies under water, Jake Johnson as a snarky zombie communicating with Cruise in his mind and Russell Crowe delivering eloquent but goofy as hell monologues about the nature of evil and unearthing the past. Simply put, it goes ham and this lunacy can be entertaining at times but it never entirely distracts you from the picture’s glaring flaws. Ultimately, silliness and Tom Cruise can’t save this mess of a movie.


Thursday, June 1, 2017

Wonder Woman Review (2017)

Lets get the hyperbole out of the way, shall we? Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” (the fourth film in the D.C. Extended Universe) is the best DC superhero film since “The Dark Knight.”

Now let me qualify that statement a bit: being the best DC superhero film since “Dark Knight” isn’t exactly a high mark to clear. “Suicide Squad” and “Batman v Superman” are miserable, overstuffed slogs and “Man of Steel” is good until that trainwreck of a last third. However, DC’s recent slump doesn’t diminish the high quality displayed in Jenkins’ picture. “Wonder Woman” isn’t merely passable or mediocre, it’s drastically better than those other lackluster flicks.

Jenkins emphasizes character over spectacle while the narrative is coherent and focused. It doesn’t tease upcoming DCEU films and the script by Allan Heinberg doesn’t clog the movie with unnecessary side plots or excess McGuffins to give the illusion of depth. Additionally, “Wonder Woman” is a lot of fun--charming and silly in equal measure. It combines the goofy, mythical otherworldliness of “Thor” with the period combat/espionage film dynamics of the first “Captain America” and lightly touches on the horrors of war and the struggles women face in society.

Through a flimsy flashback-framing device (that opens and closes the film with terribly ham-fisted voice over) we’re transported to the lush, dislocated island paradise known as Themysciria where a race of Amazons live in peace. Wonder Woman, aka Diana (Gal Gadot) is the most restless and headstrong of them, desperate to become a warrior and protect others from danger. She gets her chance when U.S. solider Steve (Chris Pine) crashes his airplane near the island. Steve is doing spy work for the British and warns the isolated Amazons about World War 1 and its threat to humanity. Diana decides to accompany Steve on his mission (going to the chaotic Western Front) hoping to singlehandedly stop the war and bring peace.

However, things aren’t so simple and in this regard “Wonder Woman” is a poignant coming of age film. Diana is fierce and self-assured, boldly marching into any harry situation. And unlike the pessimistic Batman or the latest mopey incarnation of Superman, she’s brimming with optimism. Though she’s also incredibly na├»ve and unprepared for the fact that humans, especially men, are a violent species that crave war and conflict. Her initial plan to stop the Great War is noble but somewhat simplistic, not taking into account the complexities and messiness of war. She’s never seen a village full of women and children cruelly gassed. This harsh reality has a tremendous effect on Diana, ultimately leaving her mature and slightly jaded.

This is admittedly gloomy material but Jenkins’ never lets said gloominess totally dominate the picture. “Wonder Woman” touches on the horrors of war and the cruelty of humanity while giddily embracing its pulpy comic book origins at the same time. Diana may not be able to fully comprehend the messy and gruesome nature of human conflict but she is a super being from a mythical realm--meaning she can do things the average solider can’t. At one point Diana heroically charges across No Mans Land to attack a German trench and free a French village, eventually inspiring fellow soldiers stuck in the trenches. Not a bad ally to have. Instead of spending all her time sulking about how awful humanity is Diana is proactive; killing plenty of Germans with her patented glowing lasso and shield, trying her hardest to remain optimistic and slice through the dense politics and convolutions of human conflict.  

On top of that, “Wonder Woman” playfully mocks rigid societal codes and structures, like The Patriarchy. The sequence in which Diana and Steve are in London to prepare for their mission is rife with great fish-out-of-water humor. Diana being puzzled by and then criticizing silly, misogynistic societal norms is a joy to watch. For example, her priceless reaction to the fact that women aren't allowed to be apart of high-level strategic meetings. Related to this spirited ribbing is the superb chemistry between Gadot and Pine-- their repartee and comedic timing are impeccable.

Pine, with his cocky and dopey performance, may be at his very best but Gadot is the star here. While her performance is occasionally shaky, (this is her first leading role) overall the relative newcomer holds her own, injecting Diana with ferocity, compassion and effortless wit. Jenkins keeps the film’s focus squarely on Diana and her evolution from bright-eyed Princess to grounded warrior.

The picture can be very clunky and heavy-handed at times, (ala the superfluous flashback-framing device) spoon-feeding fairly obvious plot points, themes and character arcs. Making matters worse, the last act is a mess. It’s the only time Jenkins really loses control of the project and things become incoherent. The final hero-villain showdown is an exhausting muddle of ugly CGI destruction (the CGI throughout looks third rate) and the villain himself is overly generic and one dimensional. It's the same old story:  good third acts and compelling villains are difficult to pull off in superhero movies.  Spectacle and cliche briefly snuffs out character and narrative clarity.

Nevertheless, “Wonder Woman” is an empowering, self contained, character driven, all around entertaining superhero origin film that more than adequately sets up the Amazonian Princess for future films.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Alien: Covenant Review (2017)

Though it may not appear to be the case, Ridley Scott’s “Alien: Covenant” could very easily be called “Prometheus 2.” So if you haven’t seen the first one (also directed by Scott) or haven’t seen it in a while, it’s best to give it a look before going into this new film. “Prometheus” was an ambitious, if also clunky, Sci fi blockbuster (a prequel of sorts to both “Alien” and “Aliens”) that explored the potential origins of mankind as well as the turbulent relationship between gods and their creation; what if you came face to face with your creator and they wanted to destroy you because they were ashamed of you?

“Alien: Covenant” traverses similar territory, expanding on the mythology introduced in “Prometheus” and further developing that film’s most interesting character, a mysterious android named David (Michael Fassbender) in a satisfyingly pessimistic way. At the same time “Alien: Covenant” is an “Alien” film, meaning the iconic Xenomorphs are back to cause mayhem in cramped spaces and kill foolish humans. As an “Alien” film, “Covenant” is perfectly solid— yielding a handful of bloody, visceral kill sequences but it can also feel stale and repetitive, especially when juxtaposed with the more compelling “Prometheus” material.

The picture gets off to a slow and redundant start. We meet yet another crew of space explorers led by Oram (Billy Crudup) and Daniels (Katharine Waterson, who gives a sturdy performance even if her character isn’t given much to do beyond moving the plot forward). The crew is prematurely awakened from their hypersleep and they decide to answer a distress call from an unknown planet. Things pick up a bit when Oram, Daniels and a few others touch down on the alien planet, which is covered in temperate forest and mountains. Then, just like “Alien” and “Prometheus,” the crew is terrorized by the alien virus in both proto and Xenomorphic forms. This leads to a pulse pounding, superbly crafted action sequence, set on an alien marsh and within the confines of the crew’s transportation vessel, that’s giddily ultraviolent.

However, it isn’t until the crew, now stranded on the planet, encounters David that “Alien: Covenant” really finds its stride. The film pivots into a tense, twisted and philosophical mad scientist narrative that has much more on its mind than simply rehashing familiar “Alien” thrills. If “Prometheus” asked: what if your creator wanted to destroy you, “Alien: Covenant” asks the inverse: what if your creation wanted to kill you? Charming yet devious, passive yet dangerous, compliant yet reckless and unpredictable, David was the MVP of “Prometheus” and he’s the MVP here as well. Fassbender gives a brilliant, multifaceted performance. “Alien: Covenant” is at its best when the focus is on David and his sinister ambitions rather than the Xenomorphs. The smooth talking, handsome megalomaniac android proves to be more terrifying than the aliens ever could be.

Unfortunately, “Alien: Covenant” wants to be an “Alien” movie too, which has a tendency to undermine the David/”Prometheus” material, particularly towards the end. The climactic Xenomorph fight (that’s reminiscent of both “Alien” and “Aliens”) feels underwhelming—tacked on to appease the disappointed audience members who went into “Prometheus” expecting more of an “Alien” film. In fact, pretty much all of the crews encounters with the Xenomorphs themselves are simply bland. After six or so movies the menace of those drooling, snarling jaws has waned. Ultimately, the film’s insistence on adhering to the classic “Alien” formula/structure and Xenomorph fatigue hold “Alien: Covenant” back somewhat.

And yet I would gladly watch a third “Prometheus” film in a heartbeat, just as long as Scott and co. move away from the “Alien” blueprint and make it more David-centric. He’s the X factor in this new series. Sorry Xenomorphs, there’s a new monster in town.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Graduation Review (2017)

It was all supposed to go so smoothly. Romeo (Adrian Titieni) is a successful physician/devoted father living in a small Romanian town with his wife Magda (Lia Bugnar) and teen daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Douglas). Eliza is a good student who is on track to graduate and obtain a scholarship to attend a prestigious university in the U.K. However, unforeseen chaos threatens to put this plan into jeopardy.

On the morning that Eliza is set to take her final high school exams she is randomly assaulted, leaving her shell-shocked and in no shape to focus on an exam. Being the devoted parent he is, Romeo is concerned about his daughter’s safety/health but he’s also worried about that scholarship. If Eliza doesn’t do well on her exams she won’t get the scholarship. What’s a concerned parent to do in order to preserve her bright future? Cheat.

So begins writer/director Cristian Mungiu’s methodical, understated drama “Graduation,” which thoughtfully explores the ethical dimensions concerning parenthood and the subtler modes of corruption that find their way into everyday life.

There are no overt forms of corruption and crime in this picture; there are no gangsters or rotten police officers and the resolution isn’t settled with violence. Instead “Graduation” focuses on smaller, seemingly less harmful, more ambiguous forms of corruption. On the one hand, it’s just a school exam, what’s the harm in Romeo manipulating the results, especially in light of what Eliza has been through? She’s a good student who hasn’t done anything to warrant such a traumatic incident. On the other hand, regardless of the circumstances, manipulating test results is still unethical and it could set a bad precedent. What other dishonest deeds are Romeo willing to do for his family? Dishonesty, whether big or small, is still dishonesty.  

Accompanying this dilemma, “Graduation” scrutinizes the ethical challenges of being a parent. The line between wanting what’s best for your child and controlling every aspect of their life and destiny isn’t always easy to see, especially for such a protective father like Romeo, who personally takes Eliza to school everyday and often exhibits helicopter parent tendencies. At a certain point, you have to step back a little and let your child/young adult live their own life, the way they want to live it. Romeo will clearly do anything to make sure his daughter can move on with her life but is that what Eliza wants? Does she even want to go to the U.K. in the first place or is that what Romeo wants?

Mungiu does an exceptional job of crafting a multidimensional protagonist that’s sympathetic and frustrating. Romeo is well intentioned; he genuinely cares about his daughter and wants her to have a great life, a better life than him. But as the film goes on, he becomes increasingly self-absorbed and constraining--projecting his own regrets and failures on Eliza’s life and being inconsiderate of her feelings. “Graduation” is about how our affections and selfish hopes for our children (and loved ones in general) can occasionally be suffocating and damaging, and can lead us down a path of dishonesty. The line between what’s right and wrong becomes murkier when family is involved. Mungiu examines these issues plaguing Romeo and Eliza’s relationship with restraint and nuance, never spoon-feeding the audience or resorting to melodrama.

After such heavy, deeply depressing dramas like “4 Months 3 Week and 2 Days” and “Beyond the Hills” it’s refreshing to see that Mungiu is capable of making a film that’s thought provoking and absorbing but also doesn’t make you want to commit suicide afterwards. “Graduation” is certainly no cakewalk but it also doesn’t wallow in gloominess/ tragedy and it ends on a hopeful (hinting that Romeo is capable of seeing the error of his ways) and ominously open-ended note--will all those small corrupt acts go unnoticed by authoritative forces forever?