Atomic Blonde (2017, David Leitch)

Far more often than not, Atomic Blonde is not more than it is. Atomic Blonde is not a “realistic” late eighties spy thriller à la Graham Greene or even John le Carré (see, I can do nineties “New Yorker” levels of extra too). It’s not a James Bond movie with a female lead (Charlize Theron). It’s not a great part for Theron. It might be a great role–Blonde’s got its problems but none hurt the idea of a sequel for Theron. In fact, if it weren’t filled with so many twists and turns–which is, unfortunately, what Atomic Blonde is, what it wants endeavors to be—full of twists and turns. Because Blonde really doesn’t care about logic, it cares about effect. I was going to say impact and effect but… actually, not so much impact. Because Blonde also isn’t some amazing all-out action picture with Theron kicking ass for a hundred minutes set to an amazing eighties soundtrack. There’s some Theron kicking ass, there’s some excellent action, there’s some… great songs… adequately applied, but all of those successes are extremely qualified.

First—Theron. Who is in every scene save a handful and the action is centered around her. She’s a British spy going to West Berlin to get a master list of spies out of East Berlin before the wall falls or the Soviets find it. Now, maybe biggest logic problem in the movie? Who made the stupid list. See, there’s the super-secret double agent who is doing terrible damage. Double agent British and Soviet, so originally a British spy, but then turned to the Soviets. The movie takes a while to introduce that detail—originally Theron just thinks the list is about not outing all the other spies, she’s not even aware of the double agent until the action in the movie takes place. Also there’s a dead ex-lover in Berlin. There’s a lot. And Blonde does a good job establishing it. The first act is incredibly solid. But once it becomes clear it’s not going to do anything particularly interesting with Theron or anyone else… it gets a little tedious. Even the action, which isn’t good.

See, Blonde increases the spans without action as the film progresses. Less action overall, longer action scenes. Sometimes it’s a car chase all in a “continuous” shot, sometimes it’s a fistfight. Actually, in the case of the car chase, it’s the fistfight then the car chase. It’s a whole lot. Atomic Blonde can be a lot, but never quite the right a lot. Where to gets going in the third act, with all the reveals and consequences of twists… there’s enough material it could’ve been a much better part for Theron. If it had been more Graham Green or John le Carré. Or if it had been less. If it had just been the action, the endurance aspect would’ve been awesome for Theron. The in-between doesn’t leave her much in the end. Potential for a better written sequel, which isn’t great.

It would also help if James McAvoy weren’t so bland. He’s the British West Berlin station chief and he’s “gone native,” or so spymaster Toby Jones worries, which immediately makes McAvoy suspicious re: the double agent to the audience and Theron and even Bond girl French spy Sofia Boutella, but not Jones or big boss James Faulkner or, seemingly, anyone in Berlin. Maybe it’s bad exposition on the double agent thing. Blonde sometimes rushes exposition—it leverages the direction, the photography (Jonathan Sela), Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir’s excellent but underutilized editing, and lead Theron being cool to get over the pesky details. Blonde avoids the details of the twists and turns to get the effect. Hence the aforementioned lack of impact.

Anyway.

Director Leitch doesn’t care enough about the soundtrack—and, I’ve been wanting Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry” in an action movie since the late nineties and it’s finally in one and it’s in a very problematic sequence involving Bond girl Boutella. They do a really weird job of establishing Boutella in the film—including via a Blow Out homage—and she’s one of the film’s biggest misses. Biggest miss? James McAvoy. He’s got less heft as a Berlin spy in the late eighties than Til Schweiger, who’s in three thirty second scenes, with no close-ups, always sitting down. Theron carries McAvoy through their scenes, which isn’t easy because she doesn’t get a lot of lines opposite him. She does with some of the other characters, but McAvoy’s supposed to be dominating their scenes and Theron literally has to hold it up with silent energy. McAvoy’s exhausting. And he never pays off, even in a little, in performance or script. The latter isn’t the bigger problem but it never giving McAvoy anything good, even at the end… eh.

McAvoy being so bland hurts the rest of the cast. John Goodman being bland in a much smaller role, an extended cameo maybe—he’d be able to get away with it if it were’t for McAvoy. Even Jones, who does an entirely serviceable job… it’d be nice if he had some personality. Faulkner’s good though. Eddie Marsan’s good enough. Roland Møller and Bill Skarsgård are both fine and likable, but there’s not much for them to actually do.

Last minute callouts to Cindy Evans’s costumes (she makes Theron into an unironic fashion icon and David Scheunemann’s production design; *Blonde* does look good.

As a “Charlize Theron, action hero” vehicle, Atomic Blonde’s solid enough. But it’s not Atomic or Blonde and doesn’t even really try to be. It’s perfunctory.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by David Leitch; screenplay by Kurt Johnstad, based on a graphic novel by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart; director of photography, Jonathan Sela; edited by Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir; music by Tyler Bates; production designer, David Scheunemann; costume designer, Cindy Evans; produced by A.J. Dix, Eric Gitter, Beth Kono, Kelly McCormick, Peter Schwerin, and Charlize Theron; released by Focus Features.

Starring Charlize Theron (Lorraine Broughton), James McAvoy (David Percival), Eddie Marsan (Spyglass), Sofia Boutella (Delphine Lasalle), Roland Møller (Aleksander Bremovych), Toby Jones (Eric Gray), James Faulkner (Chief ‘C’), John Goodman (Emmett Kurzfeld), Bill Skarsgård (Merkel), and Til Schweiger (Watchmaker).


Duel (1971, Steven Spielberg), the theatrical version

The first act of Duel ought to be enough to carry it. Spielberg’s direction, Frank Morriss’s editing, even Jack A. Marta’s workman photography—it’s spellbinding. It even gets through lead Dennis Weaver calling home to fight with his wife and revealing to the audience he’s a wuss. See, last night he and the wife went to a party and some guy groped her and Weaver didn’t do anything and now she’s mad. Jacqueline Scott’s the wife. She’s in one scene, a handful of shots, at home taking care of the kids after the incident while Weaver’s driving across the state (of California) for a business meeting. The whole account depends on it, but really it’s because he’s a wuss. Weaver’s a wuss, which… isn’t actually part of Duel’s initial narrative impulse because the phone call to the wife is added material for the theatrical release. Duel is a TV movie turned theatrical release (for international markets).

Weaver’s even more of an annoying wuss because he puts up his leg in a very pseudo-macho way while on the phone. It’s weird. And it’s a lot, but Duel can get through it because it’s so well-made.

See, Weaver’s driving to this meeting and he pisses off a truck driver. That truck driver starts messing with Weaver, not letting him pass, roaring past him, waving him on into another vehicle. A rural highway nightmare. What’s Weaver going to do about it with his machismo posturing after all. But Weaver doesn’t really matter—not even as much as the comedy bit playing on his radio—what matters is how Spielberg and Morriss tell this story. Well, to be fair to writer Richard Matheson… relate this anecdote.

And if Duel were a short or led Psycho-style into something else, it’d be fine. But once Weaver gets around other people and starts narrating the film with his thoughts… there’s only so much good filmmaking can do and covering for Weaver’s basically obnoxious performance is too much. Especially given how the narration doesn’t exactly sync up with the character onscreen and definitely not in the implications of his relationship with Scott. Because it turns out—though it’s a single mention then gone—Weaver’s a Vietnam vet and he might be suffering from some kind of PTSD. It’s such a surprise you spend the entire scene where white collar Weaver is trying to figure out how to speak with blue collar working men—he’s going to tell off the truck driver, who he thinks is in this roadside restaurant with him—wondering how the hell Weaver made it back alive.

There’s no help from Weaver on it, of course (I get the feeling hearing Weaver describe his character would be a trip), because his performance is… a step too far into disbelief. Killer truck driver who runs cars off the road then goes and gets their plates as trophies, yes. Dennis Weaver not being able to make a traumatized beta male sympathetic in the slightest, no.

The second half of the film—basically everything following the restaurant and Weaver’s narration starting—moves fast but not well. Nothing Weaver does is reasonable (he’s already missed the meeting, yet continues driving towards it even though the film’s established he can’t be late), Spielberg gets obvious in the reveals. Not to mention when the truck does finally turn into a six ton slasher and go all in on attacking Weaver and anyone around him (though not the school bus, in an inserted for the theatrical sequence; because Weaver in danger isn’t anywhere near as sympathetic as annoying school kids), it’s only impressive as far as the stunt driving goes.

Duel’s beautifully made for a while, then it’s well-executed albeit middling, then it’s a little tedious. Given it’s a real-ish time thriller about White middle class suspicions of the White working class being validated in a terrifying way… it shouldn’t get tedious. The tediousness of the third act is interesting—somehow Duel still moves at a good pace but Weaver’s so annoying in the action it drags.

Spielberg wanted Weaver for the role because of Weaver’s turn as the creepy motel employee in Touch of Evil, which… is definitely not the same skillset required of the role in Duel, which basically turns into a “Twilight Zone” episode once the narration starts.

So it’s this great short film with this okay “Twilight Zone” episode tacked on around halfway in.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; written by Richard Matheson; director of photography, Jack A. Marta; edited by Frank Morriss; music by Billy Goldenberg; produced by George Eckstein; released by Cinema International Corporation.

Starring Dennis Weaver (David Mann), Jacqueline Scott (Mrs. Mann), Eddie Firestone (Chuck), Lou Frizzell (a bus driver), and Carey Loftin (a truck driver).


Grumpier Old Men (1995, Howard Deutch)

The first half of Grumpier Old Men is such an improvement over the original, it could be a paragon of sequels. Director Deutch knows how to showcase the actors amid all the physical comedy. There’s a lot of physical comedy and sight gags in Grumpier. There’s Walter Matthau doing the Saturday Night Fever strut while in his mid-seventies and in a bathrobe in rural but probably not that rural, they just never talk about it, Minnesota. Grumpier has a lot of laughs. It’s learned from the experience of the previous one; screenwriter Mark Steven Johnson has, as far as setting up scenes for this particular cast, learned.

And Deutch has just the right take on the material, just the right balance between laughing at the characters and with them. And it’s sometimes hard to laugh with Matthau and fellow septuagenarian rascal, Jack Lemmon. They’re dicks to new girl in town Sophia Loren, who’s just an Italian bombshell with a heart of gold trying to find the right man even though her mama (Ann Morgan Guilbert) thinks she’s cursed in love. Grumpier definitely never feels like an homage to an Italian melodrama from the late seventies, but you can at least imagine Loren and Guilbert having these arguments for the last forty years. You can’t really imagine Lemmon and Matthau when they’re not in the middle of a movie adventure; this time they’re planning their kids’ wedding—Lemmon’s daughter, Daryl Hannah, is marrying Matthau’s son, Kevin Pollak—then Loren comes to town and there’s the whole run the new girl out of town because she isn’t going to sell live bait in the boys’ old bait shop. Frankly, it’s a disappointment Ossie Davis doesn’t show up as a ghost. It’d be a bad move, but a likable one.

Because halfway through Grumpier Old Men, the film runs out of energy and then realizes it hasn’t been doing much with the story. The first half is Matthau mugging for the camera and fight-flirting with Loren. Lemmon’s the sidekick; outside a couple solid laughs, Lemmon and Ann-Margret are entirely support in the first act. They come back at the end of the second, when we get a preview of the spin-off melodrama where Capulet Hannah and Montague Pollak discover they can’t make the marriage work because their bloodlines hate each other. Actually, a divorce melodrama with this cast would be amazing. And might be a more appropriate use the Alan Silvestri score.

Because the third act solution to the kids’ relationship problems, manipulate Daryl Hannah. For her own good. With the help of her child. Because Grumpier Old Men isn’t older adult empowerment as much as it is the Little Rascals with Lemmon and Matthau. There’s the preview of that eventuality when they pull pranks on Loren before she opens her restaurant because they want to run her out of business. Loren’s solution? Cleavage, a red dress, a Monroe wiggle, and trying to seduce Matthau in the depressing town bar. Some of its optics distract from other of its optics and Loren and Matthau are really funny so… it gets a pass but it was probably foreshadowing for the second and third act problems.

Especially since they also get themselves out of every subplot’s narrative pickle in the laziest, most manipulative way possible—particularly taking into account the target audience, White grandparents and their grandchildren, stuck together on a holiday afternoon. Deus Deus Ex: Grumpier Old Men and BLANK: For now they kill me with a living death. But no spoilers. You can guess, though, if you’re familiar with the actor. Nudge nudge.

All those complaints made… it’s kind of a lot of fun for a while. Matthau’s schtick is great. Loren’s great. Burgess Meredith—as Lemmon’s foul-mouth-and-minded ninety-five year-old dad—is hilarious. Lemmon’s fine. Turns out he’s funnier in the outtakes, which is a weird way to end the movie, showing how much funnier it could have been if you weren’t going for so bland. Ann-Margret gets the worst part, outside Hannah. And Pollak, because Pollak’s unlikable. Especially when he gets stale, scene-ending one-liner observations about the human condition in middle class nineties America, especially with aging parents; part of Deutch’s lack of personality is his obvious inability to say no to bad ideas; it makes him a tragic figure in the Grumpier mess.

It’s kind of worth it for the cast.

It’s also definitely more successful than the first, even if it ends up disappointing. Matthau gets a solid part. Loren’s got a much better part than anyone else in the movie besides him… which is a qualified compliment but… it’s cute. In an absurd way. Especially given it’s appropriate for all ages but wants to keep everyone in the audience awake.

So maybe the droning, simplistic, brain-addling Silvestri score sends subliminal messages to knock out anyone who’d be offended by all the dick jokes. They were going to have fart jokes too—because it’s a theme in the outtakes—but apparently someone decided fart jokes would be too far.

Grumpier Old Men could be a whole lot worse.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Howard Deutch; written by Mark Steven Johnson; director of photography, Tak Fujimoto; edited by Maryann Brandon, Seth Flaum, and Billy Weber; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Gary Frutkoff; costume designer, Lisa Jensen; produced by John Davis and Richard C. Berman; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Walter Matthau (Max Goldman), Sophia Loren (Maria Sophia Coletta Ragetti), Jack Lemmon (John Gustafson), Ann Morgan Guilbert (Mama Ragetti), Ann-Margret (Ariel Gustafson), Daryl Hannah (Melanie Gustafson), Kevin Pollak (Jacob Goldman), Katie Sagona (Allie), Burgess Meredith (Grandpa Gustafson).


Grumpy Old Men (1993, Donald Petrie)

If Grumpy Old Men weren’t so scared of its ribald humor—giving almost all of it to dirty oldest man Burgess Meredith, who’s just there to make sex jokes and serves no other purpose in the film—you could probably just as well call it Horny Old Men. At least in Jack Lemmon’s case. He hasn’t gotten horizontal since 1978, which might be when his wife left. Grumpy’s pretty vague with its backstory, maybe because writer Mark Steven Johnson is far more comfortable with Lemmon and nemesis Walter Matthau bickering; or maybe he’s just not good at consistency in the exposition. Given the general ineptness of the narrative, it seems more like the latter.

Because even though the film’s principal cast is entirely AARP eligible, it’s not some empowering story about older adults living full lives; if it weren’t for Ann-Margret moving in across the street and reminding Matthau and Lemmon to perv at her through their windows, they’d be just as happy sitting around alone doing nothing. Sure, Matthau’s got his TV and Lemmon plays chess against himself, but their lives are just waiting for their kids to need them. The kids—Kevin Pollak is Matthau’s son, Daryl Hannah’s Lemmon’s daughter—are the only supporting characters with a full arc. Though… arguably, Lemmon is the only of the the main characters with a complete arc. Once the third act hits, Matthau and Ann-Margret act entirely for Lemmon’s benefit, even as he’s offscreen for a bunch of the finale.

Lemmon’s arc mostly involves him dodging IRS guy Buck Henry—who’s well-utilized and quite amusing in an otherwise bland little extended cameo—because (we learn) he wasn’t paying enough back when his ex-wife was working so he owes a bunch of money and they’re going to take his house. He’s not telling anyone about these problems—and the film isn’t telling the viewer either so it can double-up expository impact when Matthau finds out about it late in the second act—so it’s hard to take the problems seriously. You’re obviously not supposed to take Grumpy Old Men very seriously, from vulgar nonagenarian Meredith to Lemmon and Matthau’s mean-spirited bantering slash full-on slapstick physical comedy; Lemmon’s money problems, despite being the biggest plot (sorry, Ann-Margret), don’t make much impact. Lemmon’s great at fretting but fretting solo can’t compare to he and Matthau going thermonuclear. Especially since Matthau’s got zip to do except go thermonuclear.

Because they’re not really Grumpy Old Men in general, just specifically as it relates to the other. They’ve hated each other since childhood; despite being pals until puberty, the first girl to come between them broke the friendship early, which must have made it awkward when Lemmon then married the girl, had a couple kids—a son died in Vietnam to remind everyone it’s actually kind of serious but in a “this was very serious thirty years ago and not since” way—and was miserable with Matthau’s dream girl. Matthau meanwhile married a good woman—the way they talk about Lemmon’s ex-wife is… problematic. Though the script’s often problematic with its female characters. The boys initially suspect Ann-Margret is a free-love type, for example, and it’s impossible to fault them because her writing is so bad for most of the first act. She’s supposed to be a passionate literature professor living her best life as a widow, which involves snowmobiling a lot. And a sauna so they can show fifty-two year-old Ann-Margret can still cheesecake.

It’s also unclear why Ann-Margret’s only three options, dating-wise, are Lemmon (sixty-eight), Matthau (seventy-three), and Ossie Davis (seventy-six). Especially since she’s not just drawing stares from the oldest guys. Of course, the film’s not really interested in fleshing out the setting. Besides Lemmon, Matthau, Ann-Margrets’s homes, the frozen lake where the men all icefish because it’s Minnesota (Davis runs the bait shop and lunch counter), a bar, and a pharmacy, Grumpy Old Men doesn’t go anywhere.

The best performance is probably Matthau, just because he doesn’t get too much to do, whereas the script fails both Lemmon and Ann-Margret (mostly her). Davis is cute, Pollak is good, Hannah’s fine. Technically it’s competent. Petrie does fine showcasing the physical comedy and the banter. Johnny E. Jensen’s photography is better than it needs to be. The Alan Silvestri super-saccharine score is a tad much though.

Grumpy Old Men has got some solid laughs and not much else.

Oh, and listen fast for John Carroll Lynch.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Donald Petrie; written by Mark Steven Johnson; director of photography, Johnny E. Jensen; edited by Bonnie Koehler; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, David Chapman; costume designer, Lisa Jensen; produced by John Davis and Richard C. Berman; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Jack Lemmon (John Gustafson), Walter Matthau (Max Goldman), Ann-Margret (Ariel Truax), Daryl Hannah (Melanie), Kevin Pollak (Jacob Goldman), Ossie Davis (Chuck), Buck Henry (Snyder), Christopher McDonald (Mike), and Burgess Meredith (Grandpa Gustafson).


Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974, John Hough)

I’m not sure how Dirty Mary Crazy Larry played on its original release—like, did audiences actually sympathize with “leads” Peter Fonda and Susan George—but whatever shine time has scrubbed off it has left something of an endurance test. Fonda and Adam Roarke (who’s more the protagonist than Fonda and often more than George) are a would-be NASCAR team. Fonda’s the driver, Roarke’s his mechanic. There’s not a lot about their history but basically Roarke’s a drunk and Fonda’s just never had a good enough car. Fonda’s got the driving skills to be a champion driver, which are more potential than realized given they drive around a mostly empty Central Valley California and there’s only like two actual chase sequences, albeit decent ones. He just can’t get the speed.

So he and Roarke decide they’re going to rob a supermarket of its cash delivery… by taking the store manager’s wife and daughter hostage and forcing him to open the safe. Roarke is the hostage-taker. He’s really good at being scary. Fonda’s in charge of getting the manager (an uncredited but rather good considering the performance calibers Roddy McDowell) to open the safe. Fonda’s not good at it. The film never explains how they come up with the plan (or target); as grocery store cash delivery robberies go, it’s not the worst plan but… Fonda and Roarke don’t seem to have any concept of possible consequences. Roarke maybe, he just stays quiet about his concerns; Fonda’s an idiot.

George is the local woman he hooks up with the night before the robbery. She tracks him down and refuses to get out of the getaway car and then outsmarts Fonda whenever he tries to ditch her. We later find out she’s an ex-con (serial shoplifting) with nothing better to do than hang with Fonda. When she first ambushes him, she goes on a little about how he’s just afraid because of their great connection the night before… but given the utter lack of chemistry between Fonda and George (and her best line being about his romantic failings)… well, it’s not like Leigh Chapman and Antonio Santea’s screenplay contributes much to the film. In fact, when it’s more surprising when it’s not terrible than when it has the occasional funny line. Deputy Eugene Daniels, who does one of the two chase scenes, is occasionally hilarious but it’s a combination of the bad script, Hough’s inept direction of his actors, and Daniels’s wanting acting chops.

Both Fonda and George are awful. George manages to be more likable because Fonda’s so unlikable, but she’s still terrible. Fonda often acts with his sunglasses on, obscuring his expressiveness… which might be a plus given the film.

Hough’s direction is occasionally incompetent—he and cinematographer Michael D. Marguiles lean into shaky camera work sometimes to the point it’s impossible to see follow a scene—but then he (and Marguiles) will have these great, elaborate long shots of the vehicular mayhem. They work at the vehicular mayhem. Nothing else. Though there’s this one strange perspective shot at the beginning with a car going down a hill where it seems like Hough’s going to try some things.

Even when the film looks good, it’s not trying anything.

The supporting cast lacks goodness but is occasionally mediocre. Kenneth Tobey mildly embarrasses himself as a blowhard sheriff guy. Vic Morrow is an iconoclast captain in the sheriff’s department (it’s unclear if Tobey’s boss or what); Morrow doesn’t carry a badge or a gun or wear any kind of uniform, he’s just a hardworking Cali farmer guy who takes the robbery personally. Apparently because of the kind of car Fonda and Roarke have. It seems like it’s going to mean something. It doesn’t. Nothing means anything in Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, including the title, which seems to be slut-shaming George (or not) and Fonda’s not crazy, he’s just a sociopathic jackass.

But it’s only ninety minutes, moves well, has the occasional good vehicular mayhem sequence, and has one hell of an ending. And Roarke’s often really good. Roarke deserves a better script, director, and so on. Fonda and George? They’re right at home in the dismal.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by John Hough; screenplay by Leigh Chapman and Antonio Santean, based on a novel by Richard Unekis; director of photography, Michael D. Margulies; edited by Christopher Holmes; music by Jimmie Haskell; production designer, Philip Leonard; produced by Norman T. Herman; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Peter Fonda (Larry), Susan George (Mary Coombs), Adam Roarke (Deke), Vic Morrow (Capt. Everett Franklin), Eugene Daniels (Hank), Kenneth Tobey (Carl Donahue), Lynn Borden (Evelyn Stanton), Adrianne Herman (Cindy Stanton), Janear Hines (Millie), Elizabeth James (Dispatcher), T.J. Castronovo (Steve), James W. Gavin (Helicopter Pilot), and Roddy McDowall (George Stanton).


John Wick (2014, Chad Stahelski)

John Wick is all right. It feels like if it’d been made in the nineties, it’d have been revolutionary. Instead, it uses all the revolutionary and not revolutionary film techniques since the nineties to make the ultimate in mainstream heavy metal neo-pulp, with a twist of seventies exploitation for good measure. It succeeds because of lead Keanu Reeves, who’s got the best pleasant angry face and does enough of his stunts—and director Stahelski knows how to showcase Reeves during those stunts—to keep the viewer engaged with his unstoppable killing machine as he moves through the video game of a story.

The film opens with Reeves seemingly fatally wounded, nothing left to do but watch a video of him and Bridget Moynahan on a beach. Cue flashback montage showing how Reeves and Moynahan were happily together (married we find out, post-montage), then she dies (from a long-term fatal illness), then she (posthumously) gets Reeves an adorable little puppy to keep him company. To this point, we haven’t seen Reeves do any action hero stuff. In fact, it feels like the film’s doing a riff on tearjerkers, only tongue in cheek.

Only then Russian mob weasel Alfie Allen steals Reeves’s car and kills the puppy so Reeves is going to get payback. The film’s first act is a lot better written than anything else, even when it feels like video game cutscenes. And John Leguizamo’s first act cameo as the first guy from the old life Reeves meets up with. Turns out Allen is son of Reeves’s former employer, Michael Nyqvist, who owes his empire to Reeves. Great performance from Nyqvist. Not a great part, unfortunately, but a great performance nonetheless.

The rest of the film, outside the detailed world-building with hotels in a Flatiron Building stand-in where all the assassins stay and it’s off limits for contracts and everyone pays each other in single gold coins and Reeves gets power-up pills because it’s kind of just Super Mario Bros. John Wick’s never very complicated. It’s got a lot of guns (without being too gun porn-y, Stahelski’s about the action not the details), a lot of bit characters, and a lot of thorough action scenes courtesy Stahelski, producer and apparently uncredited co-director David Leitch, cinematographer Jonathan Sela, but really editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir. Ronaldsdóttir, almost as much as Reeves, makes John Wick. Even when the movie’s too loud for too long—the heavy metal action thing is no joke, they have a new Marilyn Manson song for John Wick. The film’s incredibly committed to itself. Even when it gets a little much. Stahelski’s good at the action scenes but they’re not technically innovative, they’re just excellent. The film’s a series of successfully established techniques, in action, in storytelling, smartly arranged, given life by a perfectly stone-faced Reeves and an exceptional editor.

The supporting cast has some excellent extended cameos—Ian McShane, Willem Dafoe. Lance Reddick… fine, but not excellent because it’s a crap cameo. Adrianne Palicki is better than you’d think in her extended cameo as unscrupulous fellow assassin but she’s not particularly good. She’s fine. The only one not fine is Dean Winters, as Nyqvist’s chief flunky; he serves no purpose in the film other than to take up space. Someone could make something amusing out of it, Winters does not. And Allen’s decent as the standard failed son of great mobster but he ends up with nothing to do. Except somehow be the only person Reeves can’t manage to hit.

Finally, if you are going to give John Wick a watch, I feel I need to warn you about the subtitles. The film stylizes its subtitles in some truly obnoxious ways. The worst thing isn’t even the visual appearance—I mean, of course it is but the absurd visual appearance just draws attention to the pointlessness of the dialogue. If he’s not writing monologues for the guest stars, writer Derek Kolstad’s got no idea what to say. When it’s Reeves, who doesn’t have to say anything (in fact, most of his dialogue is eventually just him repeating back statements from his adversaries), it’s fine. When it’s guest stars monologuing, it’s fine. When it’s the bad guys talking about Reeves coming to kill them and what they need to do?

It’s nonsense.

In the end, Wick’s nonsense and its successes basically even out. It’s definitely a successful action movie, but maybe not a significant one… because it’s just built on previous films’ significant successes. Wick riffs on a number of them, just with the technology and ability to execute them flawlessly, but without any character and without any risk.

So thank goodness for Reeves and Ronaldsdóttir. And Nyqvist.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Chad Stahelski; written by Derek Kolstad; director of photography, Jonathan Sela;edited by Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir; music by Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard; production designer, Dan Leigh; costume designer, Luca Mosca; produced by Basil Iwanyk, David Leitch, Eva Longoria, and Mike Witherill; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Keanu Reeves (John Wick), Michael Nyqvist (Viggo Tarasov), Alfie Allen (Iosef Tarasov), Willem Dafoe (Marcus), Dean Winters (Avi), Adrianne Palicki (Ms. Perkins), Omer Barnea (Gregori), Toby Leonard Moore (Victor), Daniel Bernhardt (Kirill), Bridget Moynahan (Helen), John Leguizamo (Aurelio), Ian McShane (Winston), Bridget Regan (Addy), and Lance Reddick (Charon).


Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019, J.J. Abrams)

It is a dark time for the Star Wars franchise. Although the second highest grossing film franchise of all time, white men really weren’t okay with Kelly Marie Tran getting a lot to do in the last “trilogy” movie, not to mention women telling ostensible alpha Oscar Isaac what to do, and nobody wanted to go see the Harrison Ford spin-off not starring Harrison Ford, so there was a lot of damage control on Rise of Skywalker. Not to mention Carrie Fisher died and instead of letting her rest, the Rise filmmakers instead decided to resurrect her with unused footage and CGI compositing. Suffice to say, none of it works—with Daisy Ridley not believable acting “opposite” the artificial Fisher—seriously, they couldn’t keep doing takes until they got a better one; despite costing a fifth of a billion dollars, Rise often feels like they went way too cheap on things… especially with the rebel base stuff (meaning “Fisher,” Ridley, Tran—who’s demoted to cameo level support staff because Disney, at least the Lucasfilm division, are cowards—Isaac, and John Boyega). There’s one sequence where they really need to make the base shine and the movie can’t gin up any enthusiasm for it. Partly because it can’t gin up any enthusiasm for anything, partly because the sets appear to be way too small.

Rise of Skywalker, despite being really long, feels really reductive. Director Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio would really rather not get too far into anything in the script, which has one actual big reveal but ought to have two. It turns out Ian McDiarmid’s back (hey, wasn’t Luke originally supposed to defeat the Emperor in Episode IX in Gary Kurtz’s Empire-era series outline), but Abrams and Terrio stick that reveal in the opening crawl. Rise’s opening crawl is so bad, so defeated—where’d all of Abrams’s enthusiasm for this franchise go—it makes you wish they’d brought back George Lucas to cameo write it; he couldn’t do worse. Speaking of cameos, let’s just get the John Williams thing out of the way now.

There’s barely any original music and it’s at best mediocre. But it’s barely there. On one hand, John Williams is 87 years old and he gets some slack. On the other hand, Rise of Skywalker is supposed to be the end of a storied, beloved franchise. You’d think they’d want the best score possible. But they don’t. They want a John Williams score. They want a Carrie Fisher credit. It’s not a question of Abrams and company playing it safe; it’s not like Disney Star Wars has ever taken any real chances because it’s Disney, but Rise is like a capitulation. Even when Abrams is able to hit some good nostalgia moments, it’s because old John Williams music really does work well, it’s because his actors are still taking their jobs seriously, even with the crap script. Ridley’s big reveal, teased since the first Disney Star Wars, somehow manages to result in negative character development. It’s incredible how good Abrams and Terrio are at coping out of narrative decisions. They’re not just inert with it, they actually manage to toggle the tide in reverse. The wind in Rise of Skywalker doesn’t blow, it sucks.

Very low okay direction from Abrams. He’s in way too much of a hurry, especially for almost two and a half hours, though he doesn’t get much help from editors Maryann Brandon and Stefan Grube. Everyone seems to have a different pace for the film—Abrams, both as director and screenwriter, the actors, the editors, the music. Rise of Skywalker feels slapped together, like the bad opening crawl is to compensate for the addition of McDiarmid after they started shooting but didn’t have enough time to get any real scenes with him and Adam Driver, who ping pong balls around the film, showing up whenever needed to give Ridley some conflict, sometimes with lightsabers.

What’s maybe strangest about Rise of Skywalker is how well Driver and Ridley make out, performance-wise. Ridley’s got a shit part. Like, she plays second fiddle to Driver even when she’s running a scene—and, ostensibly, the entire plot (buds Isaac and Boyega accompany her on her mission because they’re a family and she needs boys to make sure she’s all right)—but she still manages to turn in an okay performance. She acts better than the script gives ever, implying some kind of character development… within reason. Abrams, as writer and as director, works against her. He doesn’t work against Driver, however, who ends up with a great part. I mean, as great a part as you can have in Rise of Skywalker, but a good showcase anyway. Lots of range. And some of the character development Ridley should’ve gotten.

Though Ridley does get friends. Driver doesn’t not just get friends, the movie sets him up having sidekicks and then he never interacts with them. And he’s barely got any time with fellow Imperial baddies Domhnall Gleeson and Richard E. Grant. Grant has the closest thing to fun in Rise. Gleeson’s got what should be a fun part (finally) and he manages to screw it up. Whatever. At least he’s not an E.T. or something.

Isaac and Boyega get to continue their bromance, albeit neutered and straight-coded thanks to romantic interests (name cameo Keri Russell who might only actually be in one shot and the rest a voice performance for Isaac and more… mainstream appropriate Naomi Ackie for Boyega). Now, funny thing about Boyega—who gets no time with previous movie love interest Tran—and Ackie… while the script plays it like they have chemistry, they don’t have any chemistry. And they don’t play for it either. Boyega’s interested in Ackie as a comrade with shared history, but there’s no attempt at sparking. Isaac and Russell’s disembodied voice are at least cute together.

Isaac’s effortlessly charming and not much else. Boyega’s a lot of forced smiles and enthusiasm. Though even his enthusiasm runs out.

What else….

Billy Dee Williams is back for a glorified cameo—seriously, if Carrie Fisher hadn’t died he wasn’t going to be in the movie, was he—and it’s nice to have him around. He’s really not in it enough.

Anthony Daniels has a story arc, but it gets dropped in the third act. So much for the droids being the Saga constants.

All production problems aside, the film relies way too heavily on the scale CGI can provide. Rise of Skywalker tries to supersize its threats and just makes them more and more absurd, which isn’t a bad thing because it covers a lot of what would otherwise just be plain stupid.

Rise of Skywalker is a disappointing conclusion to a forty-two year-old story. But it’s a far less disappointing conclusion to that story than the one Disney Star Wars started for Ridley, Driver, Boyega, and Isaac four years ago. Though it still manages to be a more disappointing sequel to the previous entry two years ago. Abrams succeeded faster at failing Star Wars than even George Lucas. It took Lucas sixteen years to chooch the franchise with the first prequel. Abrams did it in two.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by J.J. Abrams; screenplay by Chris Terrio and Abrams, based on a story by Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow, Terrio, and Abrams and characters created by George Lucas; director of photography, Dan Mindel; edited by Maryann Brandon and Stefan Grube; music by John Williams; production designers, Rick Carter and Kevin Jenkins; costume designer, Michael Kaplan; produced by Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy, and Michelle Rejwan; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Daisy Ridley (Rey), Adam Driver (Kylo), John Boyega (Finn), Oscar Isaac (Poe), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Joonas Suotamo (Chewbacca), Keri Russell (Zorii), Naomi Ackie (Jannah), Kelly Marie Tran (Rose), Billy Dee Williams (Lando), Domhnall Gleeson (Hux), Richard E. Grant (Pryde), and Ian McDiarmid (Sheev).


The Happytime Murders (2018, Brian Henson)

The Happytime Murders is exceptionally foul and exceptionally funny. It’s set in a world where animate puppets and humans co-exist, with the human bigotry eradicated because they’ve all decided to hate on the puppets instead. There’s no explanation of how the puppets came to be or when they came to be or whatnot; they just exist. In the past, before the humans started hating on them, the puppets were entertainers who loved to dance. Now they’re all hooked on sucrose, which gets them high. It’s such intense sucrose it’d kill a human to ingest it, which both is and isn’t important to the story.

The first act sort of sets up the world—the lead, a disgraced ex-cop puppet private investigator (performed by a fantastic Bill Barretta), narrates. He’s in the City of Angels, he works out of a crappy office, he’s got a loyal human girl Friday for a secretary (Maya Rudolph, who’s also really good), and he’s trying to make things right for the downtrodden puppets. The movie opens with him getting a case from a fetching nymphomaniac puppet (Dorien Davies); it initially seems like a somewhat crude riff on a film noir, down to Barretta’s office looking like Sam Spade’s.

However, once Barretta gets to the puppet porn store, it’s clear Happytime is going a very, very, very different route. In fact, Barretta’s going to end up forgetting about client Davies because he gets wrapped up in a spree killing case where someone is targeting the puppets who used to be on a popular primetime sitcom, “The Happytime Gang.” Barretta’s involvement starts wrong place, wrong time, but then his old boss (a likable but dreadfully miscast Leslie David Baker) forces Barretta to work the case—as a consultant—with his old partner, human Melissa McCarthy.

Barretta and McCarthy used to be the best of partners, then there was a shooting gone wrong and McCarthy had Barretta not just drummed off the force but also got a law passed puppets can’t be cops. It’s unclear if the no puppet cops thing is nationwide or just L.A. The movie gives up on relevant exposition once McCarthy shows up, which is kind of fine. Todd Berger’s script has constantly hilarious moments but it’s not a good script, it just knows expertly executed puppets (by the post-Muppet Henson company no less) being inordinately obscene is going to be funny. Any deeper and Berger wouldn’t be able to handle it.

So it’s up to Barretta and McCarthy to get over their past history and solve the case. Or just survive the case, as they don’t just have to the bad guy to ferret out, they’ve also got to contend with jackass human FBI agent Joel McHale sticking his nose in. Oh, and Barretta’s ex-girlfriend, human Elizabeth Banks; he didn’t leave things quite right with her.

Mostly the movie is McCarthy mugging through scenes with puppets, aptly delivering filthy dialogue, with some nods at legitimate character development for Barretta as he reclaims his previous potential. While also delivering filthy dialogue.

It’s hilarious. McCarthy’s really good with the puppets. So good it doesn’t even matter she’s a barely shaded caricature who gets less personality in the script than Rudolph. More than Banks though, who initially seems like stunt casting, then not, then stunt casting again. Meanwhile McHale is… in a miscasting boat similar to Baker’s, but with less likability.

As far as Henson’s direction goes… well, the puppet work is outstanding. He does a great job directing the puppets. Otherwise, it’s a fairly bland effort on his part. Every shot seems constructed to be as simple as possible, which might be requisite given the puppets—the end credits show just how much work went into the production—but it’s nowhere near as enthusiastic as the movie needs. Maybe if Henson hadn’t shot it wide Panavision aspect ratio without any idea how to fill the frame; though Mitchell Amundsen’s similarly bland photography doesn’t help things. The puppetry is no doubt inventive, imaginative; the direction is neither.

The Happytime Murders isn’t a very good movie, but it’s still a somewhat awesome one. Barretta, McCarthy, and—to a smaller, but significant degree—Rudolph, make it happen.

It’s so exceptionally foul-minded, it has to be seen to be believed.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Brian Henson; screenplay by Todd Berger, based on a story by Berger and Dee Austin Robertson; director of photography, Mitchell Amundsen; edited by Brian Scott Olds; music by Christopher Lennertz; production designer, Chris L. Spellman; costume designer, Arjun Bhasin; produced by Ben Falcone, Jeffrey Hayes, Henson, and Melissa McCarthy; released by STX Entertainment.

Starring Bill Barretta (Phil Philips), Melissa McCarthy (Detective Connie Edwards), Maya Rudolph (Bubbles), Leslie David Baker (Lt. Banning), Dorien Davies (Sandra), Joel McHale (Agent Campbell), Victor Yerrid (Larry), Kevin Clash (Lyle), Drew Massey (Goofer), and Elizabeth Banks (Jenny).


Hobbs & Shaw (2019, David Leitch)

Hobbs & Shaw is a tad too aware of how little it needs to try to succeed. Like it knows it doesn't just have Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, it's got him giving a downright good performance in an energy drink version of a James Bond movie. Sure, Jason Statham–Shaw to Johnson’s Hobbs—doesn’t really work out, but Vanessa Kirby makes up for him as his fugitive secret agent sister. Rounding out the leads is Idris Elba as the villain. He’s basically a Bond henchman but well-acted (one wonders how Elba kept a straight face during some of the exposition); he’s got an unseen boss with an electronically disguised voice so they can wait for the sequel to cast him. So Elba’s stuff when he’s talking to the unseen Big Bad is silly but Elba still keeps it going. If Statham were better and the script weren’t insipid, the movie might have more of a chance. And if the second act weren’t such a slog.

But the first act and the third are really solid, mostly because of Kirby in the third and Johnson in the first. Despite being a Fast and Furious spin-off, the movie’s got no attachment to its parent franchise other than Johnson, Statham, Johnson having a kid (Eliana Sua), and Statham having a criminal Helen Mirren for a mum. Mirren’s got a fine cameo, but given how much she’s holding Statham up for it, it should’ve been a sign he was going to run out of energy. But he actually never gets it. Kirby’s got it, Johnson’s got it, Elba’s got it. But not Statham. He never does anything wrong in a scene, but he never tries either. The scenes where he and Johnson banter back and forth, Johnson’s carrying Statham and the scene. Same goes for Kirby. Maybe they cut out Statham’s subplot because the movie’s already two hours and seventeen minutes and it’s incredibly bloated in the second act.

Or maybe Statham just isn’t enthusiastic enough for the movie. Hobbs & Shaw, in general, confuses bombast for enthusiasm. Statham has neither. Johnson’s got enough to share, so it works out.

There are also the silly cameos, which are funnier than they ought to be because their inclusion is so desperate. Because the biggest one is for Johnson, who doesn’t need the help; unless the Helen Mirren scene with Statham is supposed to count but it doesn’t. For a movie with endless exposition, somehow Hobbs & Shaw is always missing the right exposition. Instead it’s nonsense about cyborg supermen, human evolution, and programmable viruses. It’s cartoon blather but the film knows it doesn’t have to do better because Johnson’s charming and is about to have a decent action sequence—albeit one with lousy digital background composites, a problem plaguing the film and its action—so it doesn’t try. It doesn’t make Statham do better, it doesn’t worry about the messy second act.

It’s not wrong about it’s ability to land the proverbial plane despite the turbulence. The film finds a way to get sillier but also more human, becoming cartoonish in a good way, and the third act is good. The sequel set up is obnoxious but as long as Kirby’s back, it’d be worth it.

Also perfectly good in the supporting cast are Eddie Marsan and Cliff Curtis. Marsan’s a little rocky at the start, but he finds the film’s rhythm. Curtis is so sturdy you wish he’d had a bigger part.

Hobbs & Shaw is stupid, fun, and funny. The soundtrack is loud and omnipresent—including a full song montage presumably for the artist placement—and never seems like the track complimenting the action is as important as the track getting used. The film’s also big on production placement, McLaren underwrites Statham’s garage of sports cars while Elba’s cybernetically-linked (it’s a cartoon, just go with it) Triumph motorcycles gets a lot of screen time.

It ought to be better, it’s not as good as it should be, but it makes clear it could’ve been worse. Johnson, Elba, and especially Kirby make it work.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by David Leitch; screenplay by Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce, based on a story by Morgan; director of photography, Jonathan Sela; edited by Christopher Rouse; music by Tyler Bates; production designer, David Scheunemann; produced by Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Hiram Garcia, and Morgan; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Dwayne Johnson (Hobbs), Jason Statham (Shaw), Idris Elba (Brixton), Vanessa Kirby (Hattie), Helen Mirren (Queenie), Eddie Marsan (Professor Andreiko), Eliana Sua (Sam), Cliff Curtis (Jonah), and Lori Pelenise Tuisano (Sefina).


The Tall Guy (1989, Mel Smith)

Mel Smith is a stunningly inept director. Especially for comedy. Though, given its awkward flashback montages, lack of supporting character resolutions, impromptu musical number, and just over ninety minute runtime, it sure seems like there might be a longer version of The Tall Guy out there. As is, The Tall Guy is way too skinny. So maybe it’s not all Smith’s fault. Or maybe it’s just editor Dan Rae’s fault. Maybe Smith directed a bunch of good comedy and Rae just screwed it all up. Maybe there’s some explanation for why it doesn’t work.

Because lead Jeff Goldblum is really cute. He’s really cute with romantic interest Emma Thompson. The movie’s not cute, but they’re cute. They carry a lot with this movie and don’t get anything in return. Richard Curtis’s script short changes them just as much as everyone else. Including third-billed Rowan Atkinson, who’s an inflated cameo. It’s weird. So maybe there’s a good reason for it.

It’s the fairly familiar tale of American actor Goldblum trying to make it in London. He can’t get any parts because he’s too tall apparently, which isn’t clear for a while because he’s employed at the start of the movie. He works for Atkinson, who’s a bastard physical comedian with a hit stage show. Goldblum’s his sidekick. And Goldblum doesn’t seem to have any ambition past being Atkinson’s sidekick. He just wishes Atkinson would be nice to him. And he wishes his roommate Geraldine James would at least have the courtesy of bringing home a dude to buff who isn’t going to drink Goldblum’s orange juice. Goldblum’s a man of few pleasures, orange juice is one of them.

Until Goldblum has to get his seasonal allergies resolved because it’s screwing up his performance—only it’s not, it’s just getting him laughs and Atkinson is a prima donna who can’t handle anyone else getting laughs. That single tidbit of character motivation for Atkinson is more than Goldblum or anyone else in the film gets. Anyway, Goldblum has to go to the doctor, there he meets nurse Thompson and falls for her immediately. The reminder of the first act is Goldblum getting shots for his allergies from Thompson, not asking her out, whining about not asking her out to roommate James, cue comic bit about what James’s lover of the moment is doing (usually hidden from view and humorously contorted), repeat.

Once Goldblum does go out with Thompson, they immediately get physical in a raucous love-making scene you know is supposed to be funny but it’s really more just dumb. It also results in Goldblum losing his job with Atkinson, which kicks off the second act proper as Thompson will soon tell Goldlbum he’s got to get another job because she’s not dating some bum actor.

Now all of a sudden it’s supposed to be believable Goldblum’s employable as a professional stage actor. This time the absurdity of his potential projects generates the charm, as the film phases out Thompson and Goldbum’s romance, then Thompson almost entirely. How’s Goldblum feel about it? Who knows. He doesn’t have the depth of a head shot.

Affable performances all around, though by the third act you’ve got to wonder how Goldblum and Thompson kept a straight-face through the disastrous third act. Professionalism, pass it on.

Atkinson always seems like he’s about to be really funny and it never pays off.

Anna Massey is fun as Goldblum’s agent.

There’s a poppy score from Peter Brewis. It’s rather energetic, which is something since the film manages to drag even at ninety-two minutes.

Adrian Biddle’s photography is solid.

Smith could be worse at composing shots. He could be as bad at it as he is directing actors.

The Tall Guy’s problematic execution give the film its charm through the first half plus a few, but then once it shatters that charm—intentionally—it’s got nothing to replace it with. Not in the acting, writing, or directing. It’s a bummer for Goldblum, Thompson, and Atkinson; they deserve something for keeping the film afloat. Against some considerable odds.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Mel Smith; screenplay by Richard Curtis; director of photography, Adrian Biddle; edited by Dan Rae; music by Peter Brewis; production designer, Grant Hicks; produced by Paul Webster; released by Virgin Vision.

Starring Jeff Goldblum (Dexter King), Emma Thompson (Kate Lemon), Rowan Atkinson (Ron Anderson), Emil Wolk (Cyprus Charlie), Geraldine James (Carmen), and Kim Thomson (Cheryl).



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