Archive for the ‘action/adventure’ category

Lou

September 25, 2022

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It’s tempting to say that the idea of Allison Janney as an action hero would be tough for any movie to live up to, but Lou tries very hard. Lou (Janney) is a scowling loner who lives off the coast of Seattle with her loyal dawg. (The dog survives; the movie never really puts that in doubt.) She acts as a grouchy landlady to Hannah (Jurnee Smollett) and her little daughter Vee (Ridley Bateman), who live nearby. Problem: Hannah’s ex-husband Philip (Logan Marshall-Green), a psycho who used to be with the Special Forces, kidnaps Vee, spiriting her across the rainy, perilous island towards a symbolic structure, with Lou and Hannah in hot pursuit. 

We know Lou’s no pushover even before she angles into a shack inhabited by two of Philip’s armed associates and dispatches them ruthlessly, one with a broken and sharp soup can. For this scene and at least one other, Allison Janney was trained by martial artist and fight coordinator Daniel Bernhardt, who did likewise for Bob Odenkirk on Nobody. Those who liked Nobody for its transformation of someone not known for action into an ass-kicker will probably want to give Lou a day in court. It is, of course, the sort of story that only speaks in the broad vowels of pulp, but pulp isn’t illegal — why fight it? 

The script (by Maggie Cohn and Jack Stanley) ties together a lot of psychological/thematic threads neatly and, I thought, gratifyingly. The reason for Philip’s psychosis, we eventually gather, opens him up for some sympathy. But he’s no less scary for that, and possibly scarier, because the illness we’ve diagnosed in him will not be readily cured, the rage perhaps never appeased. The narrative threads, on the other hand, knot together in ways that strain credulity. By the end, I was wondering if the kindly ol’ island sheriff (ol’ dependable Matt Craven, a “hey it’s that guy,” Canadian division) was somehow connected to the shenanigans as well. Heck, everyone else seems to be. But if you want starkly believable plots, you’d do well to avoid the “thriller” section at the video store.

Yes, I did say “video store,” which is a too-cute way of saying that Lou unfolds in late 1986, when Reagan is on the box denying any such thing as an exchange of weapons for hostages. An episode of Only Murders in the Building this past season posted a weirdly funny riff on the whole Iran-Contra Affair, too. Why this enduringly shameful chunk of recent American history is rearing its clean-cut Oliver North head now is a question I don’t feel qualified to answer. But it engages nicely with the backstories of some of the characters. It also takes the story out of the realm of cell phones, and when our heroes are trying to reach civilization and have to do it via sketchy walkie-talkies, we might sympathize with writers whose movies would be five minutes long if anyone had a working phone. Not that this rainy, windy island would be within service anyway.

Allison Janney is not the new Michelle Yeoh, or even the new Cynthia Rothrock, but the moves she’s added to her toolbox work for her character even in quiet, noncombative moments. When you’ve been trained to execute maneuvers that can kill someone, you carry your body differently. That was evident with Odenkirk, who trained for two years and definitely had the vibe of someone who could end you efficiently and then move on to the next aspiring corpse, and sometimes had it just sitting there. The key to the performance is the moment when Lou, posing as a frail ol’ gal named Martha who just wants to come in out of the rain, ever so slightly overdoes the frail-ol’-gal mannerisms. Janney is a great actor, but Lou, despite her other skills, is not, quite. (Or she may have been once, but living in isolation for so long has rusted those particular gears.) So Janney acts badly in character, and it’s as though Lou had such contempt for her stupid opponents that she doesn’t bother to make her “performance” realistic. These idiots deserved to die, and didn’t deserve Lou at her peak of imposture. Lou is low-nutrition thriller babble, but it’s often fun, and it has Allison Janney, for Pete’s sake.

Samaritan

August 28, 2022

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Once upon a time, two superpowered brothers lived in rainy, poverty-stricken Granite City. Samaritan, the good one, fought for peace and justice. Nemesis, the bad one, was full of hatred — for the normal humans who’d called them freaks, and for his brother. One night, the brothers fought each other, and there was a big kaboom, and everyone thought they were both dead. But a little boy named Sam (Javon Walton) thinks Samaritan might still be alive, in the form of Joe Smith (Sylvester Stallone), a recluse who just so happens to live in the building next door.

Samaritan is a simple-minded superhero flick that offers no solution or reason for the grinding poverty it shows us. Someone on the news is literally cut off before she explains why unemployment and evictions are high. It’s just something that happens in the big city, where a lot of those, y’know, urban types dwell. To cover its ass, Samaritan gives us a blonde, Viking-looking gang leader, Cyrus (Pilou Asbæk), who stokes working-class resentment (for his own ends, of course) and wants to follow in Nemesis’ footsteps. Still, a lot of those, y’know, urban types work for Cyrus — including little Sam, at first. But Joe stands tall and points the way that others should go — to redemption or to Hell, their choice.

Stallone keeps his end of the bargain. He’s playing the ancient trope of the still-powerful old-timer drawn back into the fray against his better judgment, but he plays it simply and well. Joe just wants to be left alone in his apartment to tinker with things he finds on his trash-collecting route. Stallone makes us feel Joe’s weariness alongside his growing impulse to do for the city what he does for watches and toasters. One’s focus shifts immediately and gratefully to him whenever he’s around, and he even sells a flashback moment with him de-aged to look like, say, Nighthawks-era Sly. He’s the reason most people will bother with this and stick with it (though the other actors, particularly Dascha Polanco as Sam’s harried mom, aren’t bad).

It’s the nihilistically grungy backdrop, like Hobo with a Shotgun or RoboCop without the satire, that sticks in the craw. Granite City is full of misery, and full of mobs of people easily swayed to chant Nemesis’ name and then Samaritan’s. Such soil is fertile for the seeds of fascism, as is the soil of a lot of superhero power fantasies. I wouldn’t be — don’t want to be — going here if Samaritan were any fun, but largely it isn’t. The action is PG-13 brutal but dumb; half the shots we see bad guys take from Joe look like they’d be fatal. After too many macho things like this, in comics or in movies, I can see why old issues of Wonder Woman are so gratifying to me. My favorite version of Wonder Woman (there are many) is so powerful she can afford to be kind, even to her enemies. I’ve read stories where she says of that month’s baddie, “I know what in this person’s life turned them towards mistakes. I’m going to see that they get help.” 

But that sort of thing probably lies beyond a movie produced by as well as starring Sylvester Stallone, whose presence sometimes makes Samaritan seem like Cobra for teenagers (actually, Cobra was always for teenagers). There are honest, hard-working moms harassed by their landlords, and there are low scum who kill without a thought; there’s no middle ground, even though Joe’s whole arc rests on the possibility of redemption and the war, as Joe says, between good and bad in the same heart. I guess that depth of understanding only applies to white male heroes and the little boys who idolize them. There’s a female character who runs with Cyrus’ gang, having been “rescued” by him from living in a car at age eight. Joe kills her with a bomb. Apparently her crisis wasn’t as valid as Sam’s or Joe’s.

Day Shift

August 14, 2022

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J.J. Perry is a martial artist, fight coordinator, and former stunt person/stunt supervisor. So it doesn’t surprise me that Perry’s first film as a director, Day Shift, is a zesty tribute to all those disciplines. Jamie Foxx’s Bud Jablonski, a vampire hunter posing as a pool cleaner in L.A., strides into one vampire nest after another, loaded for bear, and the vampires don’t take Bud’s invasions lying down. No, they come at him whirling and kicking and chopping, and Bud puts them down with various weapons and techniques, though just barely. Vampirism, it seems, confers lots of violent skills upon the vampire other than just biting, and Day Shift is there to showcase them all.

It’s a fast, furious Saturday-afternoon time-killer, but how is it aside from the mayhem? The script, by Tyler Tice and Shay Hatten, comes up with sly ideas like a vampire hunters’ union, whose codes and rules make it hard for a firecracker like Bud to make a living. So he’s been working on his own, making far less money, until he needs a quick infusion of cash to make sure his ex-wife Jocelyn (Meagan Good) and daughter Paige (Zion Broadnax) don’t take off for Florida — he needs to cover the costs of Paige’s tuition and braces. As a plot motor, it’s a bit dusty — we’re to believe Bud has gone all this time keeping his real job a secret from his family — but we go along with it to get to the good parts.

The union stuff gives Bud an unwanted partner — Seth (Dave Franco), a union bean-counter assigned to observe Bud, who’s applying to get back into the union for more money, to make sure he follows all the rules. Bud doesn’t, of course, and the premise that Seth is Bud’s babysitter doesn’t last long. Seth exists solely as a wimpy foil for Bud’s go-for-broke, hammer-headed methods. Foxx and Franco make a mildly amusing team, though I would’ve liked to see more of Snoop Dogg, who has a few scenes and makes them count as Big John, a respected vamp-slayer. For that matter, I was ready for more of Natasha Liu Bordizzo as Heather, Bud’s mysterious neighbor. In some ways, the characters and worldbuilding in Day Shift seem to lay groundwork for further stories, like John Wick (co-writer Hatten worked on the third John Wick and is attached to the next two).

Bud frequently storms enclosed spaces, the better for he and his vampire prey to bounce off the walls. The vehicular stunt work is particularly well staged, composed, and edited. Sometimes when a master of another film vocation — say, special effects or cinematography — ascends to the director’s chair, they focus on their thing and forget most of the other things that go into making a movie. That isn’t the case here. J.J. Perry seems to respect the moth-eaten plot motor of Bud doing battle with monsters for the sake of his little girl, and the scenes that don’t involve stunts don’t seem rushed or half-assed. Day Shift feels like a movie made by a craftsperson who may have gotten tired of watching inept directors disrespect the arts of stuntwork and fight choreography by slicing it into a thousand unviewable pieces in the editing room. You can see what’s going on here, and that’s a relief.  

If Foxx wants a bubble-headed, action-oriented franchise, he’s got one here. As long as they bring all the folks back, especially Snoop, I’ll watch. But is L.A. — hell, the world — really so infested by vampires that an actual union of vampire killers is needed? It’s a funny idea, one that may get fleshed out in sequels, and a vamp bigwig called El Jefe (Dracula?) is mentioned but never seen. Sometimes vampires seem to outnumber humans here. The big bad here is Audrey (Karla Souza), who wants a world where humans worship vamps as gods. But has she really thought it through? If vampires feed on humans all the time, where will their worshipers come from? Or their meals? Zombies chow down on people with no thought for long-term consequences because, well, zombies aren’t big on thinking, but you’d think vampires would be more savvy. 

Prey

August 7, 2022

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The well-loved Predator (1987) pitted Arnold Schwarzenegger and a cadre of tough guys against an ugly alien hunter with superior technology. After several sequels over the years, the franchise notes its 35th anniversary with Prey, an action-thriller set in 1719 among mostly a Comanche tribe as they attempt, more or less feebly, to contend with this merciless E.T. warrior. It takes Naru (Amber Midthunder), a young Comanche woman raised as a healer but yearning to be a hunter, and her loyal dog Sarii to defend the tribe against the Predator as well as some human predators (some French trappers).

Some have called Prey the best Predator film since the original. I may not be the best judge of that — Predator 2 (1990) eludes my memory, I fell asleep on Predators (2010), and I missed The Predator (2018) and the Alien Vs. Predator duology. But I’ll take their word for it. Sharply and succinctly directed by Dan Trachtenberg, from a meat-and-potatoes script by Patrick Aison, Prey establishes its conflict with no fuss, gives us a hero straining against the role 18th-century Comanche culture dictates for her, and doesn’t skimp on the action. It’s brisk old-school entertainment, and what it’s doing on Hulu and not on a big screen near you is beyond me.

Then again, Hulu offers the choice to view the film in a version dubbed in Comanche, which feels right. Not that there’s much chat anyway. The French trappers, mainly scum and Predator fodder, speak in French subtitled in French, so I guess it doesn’t matter what they’re saying. The one exception speaks Comanche to Naru and provides her with firepower other than her bow and her tomahawk. Why do I mention all this? I guess because the film’s setting (it was filmed in chilly Alberta, Canada) and polyglot nature reminded me of some of the better spaghetti westerns, especially those by Sergio Corbucci. 

I hasten to add Prey doesn’t share much besides aesthetics and a certain people-talking-past-each-other vibe with Corbucci. But I’m glad of any current movie that evokes him. I’m also glad to make a better acquaintance with Amber Midthunder, whom I might’ve seen in one TV show or another; here she takes the screen effortlessly and builds rapport with us immediately. Naru makes a fine no-frills heroine, though she’s made a bit too flawless. Other than the hunting training she works on by herself and doesn’t always come naturally to her, she doesn’t have a streak of impatience or something a young, energetic hero would have to unlearn. Of course, in such an action-centered movie this comes with the territory.

Naru takes some hits and losses, but her dog isn’t one of them, which is fine with me as a frequent visitor to the Does the Dog Die? website. Generally, Prey doesn’t want to bum us out too much. It’s a zippy Saturday-matinee creature feature. The apparent randomness of its setting (there is talk of setting further Predator movies in various other eras) allows for some subtext that isn’t stressed too much. What I admire most is that the film prizes Naru’s smarts above all else. Sure, she’s brave, loyal and independent, but she’s also a quick study, and she notices things about the Predator’s techniques that help keep her and others safe. She’s a great hero for this moment — not tough so much as resilient. 

The Lost City

July 31, 2022

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Sandra Bullock seems legitimately depressed in the early scenes of The Lost City. She’s playing Dr. Loretta Sage, a bestselling romantic-adventure novelist whose archaeologist husband died five years ago. Since then, Loretta has barely left the house, and she’s no longer feeling the Romantic Adventure — she’s thinking of retiring her Romantic Adventurers Lovemore and Dash, which would be a bummer for hunky but doofy model Alan (Channing Tatum), who poses as Dash on the covers of Loretta’s books. Anyway, Bullock has been altogether too grim in recent years, what with Gravity, Bird Box, and The Unforgivable, so I was worried about her demeanor here until I remembered the film was following the familiar Romancing the Stone template, where the novelist must break through her emotional hindrances and embrace, well, Romance and Adventure. As it is, I don’t think Bullock even laughs until almost the end.

That doesn’t mean she isn’t entertaining, though. The Lost City is the sort of bubbly, unchallenging studio plaything that some of us may receive gratefully in these harrowed times. Will I watch it again? Maybe not; not when I can rewatch Romancing the Stone or, for that matter, Raiders of the Lost Ark. But it’s a mild mood enhancer if you just hand yourself over to it and say, Okay, movie, do your thing. There may be long stretches where you forget the official plot and just roll with the gently funny rapport between Bullock and Tatum. I liked that Loretta is still too fogged up by grief to notice that the younger, dishy Alan seems to be crushing on her; I liked the movie’s nods to LGBTQ+ representation in the persons of Bowen Yang and Patti Harrison as satellites publicizing Loretta’s book. The movie feels somewhat canned but is also good-hearted. The only significant blood we ever see is part of an abrupt joke I won’t spoil.

So this is an old-school adventure, with caves and underwater tunnels and, as advertised, a lost city on a remote island, a city that skunky billionaire Abigail Fairfax (Daniel Radcliffe) wants to discover. To that end, he kidnaps Loretta, figuring she can translate a bit of parchment that might lead to the city and its possible treasure. Wanting to establish himself as Loretta’s hero, Alan follows, and the two are soon bumbling through the jungle, doing battle with leeches and sharing a hammock that really only fits one. The awkwardness with which Loretta extricates herself from the hammock while trying not to awaken Alan is an example of the unnecessary but welcome gestures towards realistic discomfiture sprinkled throughout the film. Alan is always jumping into derring-do situations and finding himself not up to the task. This isn’t a cruelly gritty deconstruction of adventure, though, so we simply read it as comedic misadventure. 

The Lost City is the sort of amiable, star-centered bonbon that used to make modest-to-surprising profits in a more lenient age for movies. Sadly, it may not have cleared enough to call for a sequel, but it’s done well enough in the new COVID landscape to be noted as a moderate success. As an “original” story not involving superheroes that seeks only to amuse, it has its place. That it feels a little thin and forgettable may come down to the general lack of imagination that went into the action set pieces; they always seem to boil down to our heroes being chased by gun-toting henchmen, and even the climactic erupting volcano doesn’t pack as much of a punch as it should. Still, the reveal of the true buried treasure confirms the film’s devotion to tweaking dusty old tropes, and if there are no Loretta & Alan adventures in the future, I hope at least to see Bullock and Tatum hanging out again. They make this ride worth it.

 

The Matrix Resurrections

December 25, 2021

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There’s a whole bunch of plot jibber-jabber in The Matrix Resurrections, as there was in the previous three films in the series, but at least this one is a bit more emotionally readable. Lana Wachowski, one-half of the Wachowskis who engineered the Matrix franchise, has said that her impetus for going back to the Matrix well was the deaths of her parents. She wanted them back, and she put that yearning into a story in which everyone moves heaven and earth to get Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), the heroes of the earlier movies, back together and in charge of the resistance against those who would misuse the Matrix.

I have very little understanding or recall of what happens scene for scene in The Matrix Resurrections, but the elation of having these two back cuts through the murk like a foghorn. Even if, like me, you were never sold on the brilliance of The Matrix, some part of you may respond to the characters’, and Wachowski’s, gratitude that Neo and Trinity are still up for a fight, though this movie takes a while to re-acquaint Neo and then Trinity with reality outside the Matrix. In the matrix, Neo, or Thomas Anderson, is a rich and betrophied videogame designer, whose game The Matrix was a big hit. Thomas happens across Trinity in a coffee shop, except she’s now Tiffany, married with kids.

There’s a fair amount of meta snark here. Thomas faces doing a belated sequel to his original Matrix game trilogy, because if he doesn’t, Warner Brothers will find someone who will. There’s some talk about how originality is dead and entertainment rehashes the same stories endlessly. Wachowski is on thin ice here, but the strong thread of feeling — which we’re told here affects people more than facts — carries us through. Wachowski talks about the dangers of submitting to a comforting fiction (the Matrix, with its taste of steak) while submitting to a comforting fiction; this isn’t hypocrisy, it’s an honest assessment of what we often want and need from art. If the first Matrix films were really about the trans experience (although the sequels kind of got bogged down in set pieces), this one is about making a self out of one’s own, or others’, creations.

The pertinent question here might be, How is it as a Matrix film? I doubt it’s possible to go back to the relative simplicity of the first movie and disregard the convolutions larded on by its sequels (the way, say, David Gordon Green’s Halloween sequel did), and Wachowski acknowledges that on some level. A lot of clutter has to be thrown in the path of Neo and his new band of acolytes before Trinity figures things out and re-assumes her role; it’s significant that it’s a choice she must make for herself, a subtext unlikely to win the movie fans among conservatives. (As much as she must have wanted to, Wachowski doesn’t have time here to include scuzzy incels appropriating her red-pill-blue-pill metaphor. There is, however, chit-chat about binary ways of thought and living, and how those are truer to a machine’s view of humanity than to the reality of it.)

Back in 1999, The Matrix felt like a brutal-cool riff on the old themes of individuality vs. oppression (we didn’t yet know the story had deeper meanings for Lana and Lilly Wachowski; Lilly chose to sit out this film). I wasn’t terribly wowed at the time, but in hindsight it emerges as one of an accidental run of movies in that year grappling with reality and our role in it. It makes more sense in its 1999 context as a sharp, sickly-green pre-millennium vision than as the start of an increasingly bloated franchise. The Matrix Resurrections ultimately can’t go home again, and Wachowski knows it; there’s a streak of melancholy running through the film, but intertwined with a streak of hope that the elders of cool, Neo and Trinity in their black-on-black get-ups, still have something to teach us, and that there are younger warriors willing to go to the brink to rescue their wisdom. And if you’re looking for a review that tells you how the new Morpheus is, or how bad-ass the fights are, you took the wrong pill.

Kate

September 12, 2021

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Slicker than goose shit, Netflix’s #1 trending new film Kate is stylishly brutal and will probably be praised in some quarters accordingly, but it leaves us wanting more. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is laconically terrific as Kate, an assassin who gets poisoned and spends the remainder of the movie, and the rest of her shortened life, searching for the yakuza higher-up who gave the order. Kate kills her way through Japan, coughing and injecting herself with stimulants to keep going. Even just this far into the review, film titles may have popped into your head: John Wick and the Crank films and DOA (either version) and many others.

In and of itself, Kate is smoothly pieced together, but it simply echoes too many of its ancestors to earn a place among them. It’s probably best for fans of Winstead and of gnarly action — the fight choreography is quick and vicious, and the digital effects augment the carnage (Kate takes out one poor sap by shoving a knife through his lower jaw up through the bridge of his nose). Segment by segment, the movie keeps us going, like those stimulants, but ultimately it winds down, and our interest with it. Kate is provided with a damsel in distress, teenage Ani (Miku Martineau), whose uncle is a yakuza bigwig; her father had earlier been killed in front of her by sniper Kate, though Ani doesn’t know this.

Shooting and stabbing her way up the ladder of the Japanese underworld, Kate needs to keep the whiny Ani alive, and every time we see Ani, we’re reminded of how false this relationship feels, how roughly it seems forced into place. Thank God Kate’s maternal instincts aren’t awakened by Ani — Kate feels bad for getting Ani’s dad’s blood all over the kid’s face, but that’s about it. When Kate takes scissors to her hair in a restroom, she comes out looking a bit like Sigourney Weaver in Aliens. The script, sadly, doesn’t give Winstead much to call her own. Kate is professional and pained and vengeful. She doesn’t have time to be anything else. For the sake of a cool visual late in the film — when Kate should be almost dead — she comes out, loaded for bear, smoking a cigarette and backed by numerous yakuza. Sorry, is this the same woman we’ve seen coughing in every scene and, pre-poison, jogging and parkouring up alley walls? There’s no reason for her to put more toxins in her body and mess up her respiration other than Rule of Cool.

Which, I suppose, will be enough for some. It’s probably an homage to Chow Yun-Fat in The Killer or Hard Boiled, or any number of films where an assassin blithely sucks up some nicotine before rolling up their sleeves and aerating dozens of foes. But Kate has too many moments like that, where we figure something’s there because someone (maybe director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, or writer Umair Aleem, or both) thought it’d look awesome. It does, kind of, but in all the old ways. Filmed in Tokyo, Bangkok, and L.A., Kate is full of decadent neon and Japanese hip-hop and densely packed nightclubs. There’s also an evil gay assassin (played by the musician Miyavi, the obsessed sergeant in Unbroken) who fights well enough but, jeez, why the yellow/pink peril?

It’s not as if the movie had anything to say about sexuality. Kate takes a rando to bed (contemptuously tossing a wad of cash on the nightstand), and if not for this guy, she wouldn’t get poisoned. Nothing he says to her strikes us as witty or persuasive enough to score with her, so why does she bother? Then again, we never ask why James Bond or other male assassins pause to savor the touch of a woman; maybe she just needs to work off some nervous energy. God knows she doesn’t have anyone else in her life, other than Woody Harrelson in a handful of scenes as Kate’s handler Varrick. (Is his first name Charley?) I wasn’t aware Harrelson had entered the stage of his career when he pops in for extended cameos in empty-calorie actioners; he probably does it better than Bruce Willis does at this point, but that’s not saying much. As with Winstead, his professionalism is appreciated, but one wants to be watching either of them in anything else.

Godzilla Vs. Kong

June 13, 2021

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The cartoonist Sergio Aragonés once pointed out something in an interview that has stuck with me for some thirty years. He said that when Superman in the comic books was rendered less realistically and more cartoonishly, he could pick up a tall building by its corner and we could believe it. In later years, Aragonés said, when Superman and his surroundings were depicted with more physical realism and you could see all his veins and muscles, all the bricks in the building, we could no longer believe in such a feat — we would assume the building would just crumble apart. Aragonés’ insight applies as well to movies, which can depict the unreal with surface realism — you can see all the details — but lose something in the realm of fantasy and imagination.

Who ever wanted to see a realistic King Kong or Godzilla? Kong as realized by Willis O’Brien in the 1933 film has a rough-hewn magic that inspires glee and fear, sometimes both at once. The Godzilla, or Gojira, of some of the goofier Toho films was clearly a man in a suit, and accordingly had a human vibe. He was the kind of monster we felt close to, sorry for. All of that is lost in Godzilla Vs. Kong, in which the title opponents are of course created in computers. And boy, you can see all the details. Nothing is left to the imagination — at least as it applies to the damage the titans do to each other. Humans, on the other hand, die as afterthoughts, as gnats in what they thought was their narrative, but which instead belongs to the bestial and gigantic. And when the titans clash in the middle of Hong Kong, buildings are atomized, blown apart into coffee-cake crumbs, scattered like drops of mist. 

We’re told the city has already been evacuated, but that hardly matters. What we’re seeing is vast destruction, and the assurance that there’s no human toll is the sheerest hypocrisy. The fact is that we didn’t care fifty or sixty years ago if there were people in the buildings Godzilla wrecked, and we don’t care now. The problem is that even the buildings are rendered here with the utmost realism. So this sort of narrative handwaving is less convincing now than when the buildings were obvious cardboard. These are made to look like real creatures in real space destroying real objects. The cartoonish quality of a vintage Toho monster mash is gone. The fun, for me, is gone.

Does the story really matter? Demian Bechir plays an arrogant tech moneybags who believes the Titans — Kong, Godzilla, and the critters Godzilla fought in 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters — threaten humanity’s status as the planet’s alpha, its apex predator. So he has built Mechagodzilla to kill them. Godzilla and Kong don’t get along at first, but ultimately they join forces against Mechagodzilla, and truly when you distill this thing down to a brutal synopsis it sounds like something you’d see on a 22-minute episode of the ‘70s Hanna-Barbera Godzilla cartoon. And it would have been more entertaining there. Instead, Godzilla is charmlessly ugly, and Kong is always unhappy and riled up, and Mechagodzilla is this clangorous mess of steel, and there’s no exhilaration in it except for one moment when Kong and Godzilla roar at each other.

Godzilla Vs. Kong made money against all odds, so there will be more movies in this “MonsterVerse” franchise (which also includes 2014’s Godzilla and 2017’s Kong: Skull Island, the latter of which I missed). This might be the time for me to tap out of this series, though. The look of most of them is grim, gray, drizzly. (Kong’s milieu, though, is naturally sunnier and more colorful — the bits I’ve seen of Kong: Skull Island seem to bear that out.) Everything is drab now — the Bond films, superhero films, and giant-monster films. They’re depressing to look at and to spend any length of time in. So I’ll stick with the old monsters. Even the black-and-white monster films have a sharper visual pop than the dishwater dregs of Godzilla Vs. Kong. 

Army of the Dead

May 23, 2021

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It’d be nice if Athena Perample got a career bump from Zack Snyder’s mediocrity at length Army of the Dead. A stuntwoman, Perample appears in the new zombie film as a character credited as Alpha Queen, and she slinks around hissing and looking fabulous in an undead Corpse Bride fashion. (Even the zombies are hotties in Snyderverse.) I’ve seen Army of the Dead described as being full of characters who could carry their own interesting movies, but are instead all stuck with each other in a boring movie. The Alpha Queen would be exhibit A. Are the alpha zombies the top of the hierarchy of zombies? Do they have a culture? Leisure activities? They’re said to be smarter than the usual “shamblers,” but are they building anything or just squatting on the dust of a dead world?

There’s little evidence that Zack Snyder cared all that much about the implications of a zombie society. Snyder isn’t a thinker; like Christopher Nolan, he works up to big, showy sequences, devoted to his jock-nerd idea of cool. I don’t think Snyder is without merit: he did well by Watchmen and made an accidental masterpiece with Sucker Punch, which I persist in considering unconscious art. But without a strong structure, his films tend to go by in a semi-sequential blur. They have no internal clock, no rhythm. Something happens, something else happens, and it’s all on the same emotionally null level. 

Army of the Dead is never more risible than when it asks us to sniffle over the fates of characters we barely know, even though Snyder has plenty of time to acquaint us with them. Hell, George Romero’s longest Dead film was only 126 minutes, and it was described as “epic” despite being confined mostly to one location. This damn thing runs for two hours and twenty-eight minutes, and though it mashes up the zombie genre and the heist genre — a group of hardcases are tasked with getting millions of dollars out of a Vegas casino before the whole zombie-overrun city gets nuked — it doesn’t even give us a montage where the players plot things out. Dave Bautista gets top billing as a mercenary (I guess?) who puts a team together to fetch the money, and again, as with Man of Steel, the connective narrative — when Bautista recruits various people (a safecracker, a hard-bitten expert at zombie warfare) — feels like placeholders. Snyder kind of just goes through them so he can get to the good stuff, when zombies bite folks real good and then get shot up real good. In both cases, blood sprays all over the place.

Army of the Dead is raring to be big and excessive, and the concussive deep bass and scale of it can be mesmerizing in fits and starts. Sometimes we look at the chaotic images and we lament the kind of zombie opus that George Romero was never given the budget to make. Romero would’ve known what to do with this cast, too. I like Bautista — his cartoonishly wide frame holds some tenderness — but Snyder doesn’t do much with him. A lot of the publicity has surrounded Tig Notaro being digitally ported in to replace accused sexual scumbag Chris D’Elia, but the movie neither gets the best out of her nor deserves it. We’re supposed to root for all these people because they’re not zombies, I guess, although the film sometimes seems on the verge of switching our allegiances around (hey, zombies have feelings too!) but ends up fumbling that too.

Snyder spent the better part of a decade in the DC Comics wilderness, making dour, overlong films nobody much enjoyed. Did he ever even like superheroes? He seemed more at home with the deconstructionist superhero valedictory Watchmen. I thought Sucker Punch was a possible unaware shiv in the ribs to the Comic-Con rules of cool — Snyder the naive satirist. But in Army of the Dead he’s back doing stuff seemingly calculated to make high-school boys exclaim “Badass!,” except this time nothing is skewered. The story is bloated and amorphous, and whatever targets it might have are murky. As in his Dawn of the Dead remake, Snyder isn’t using the zombie movie as a Trojan horse for social comment; even the crass irony of zombies feasting on Vegas schmucks and showgirls is threadbare and abruptly handled. Snyder just wants to get to the parts where hordes of zombies get their brains blown out, over and over. It gets old for us a lot sooner than it does for him. 

Nobody

April 17, 2021

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Sometimes you just want a brutality expert wrecking house and perforating faceless bad guys, and Nobody gives you that and then some. At ninety-one minutes, the movie embodies “lean and mean,” and it’s not about anything — it’s just an excuse to get our hero into as many ferocious encounters as possible. It’s the kind of pure cinema that traditionally gets little respect except from action-film fans, who have seen everything and just want to see it done well. Is it realistic? Gedoudda here. It’s a cartoon. But as directed by Ilya Naishuller (Hardcore Henry) and written by Derek Kolstad (the John Wick series), it’s made by people who know what they’re doing. When a baseline of competence is in place, there’s solid ground from which to jump, take flight, indulge in excess.

Perhaps best known these days for Breaking Bad and its spin-off Better Call Saul, Bob Odenkirk would seem, at the very least, cast against type here as Hutch Mansell, an apparently meek office drone crunching numbers in his father-in-law’s business. (Indication of the fun to come: dad-in-law is played by badass character actor Michael Ironside.) About half an hour into the movie — by which time we’ve seen Hutch decline to meet a couple of home invaders with a violent response — we find out that Hutch used to do wetwork for “the three-letter agencies.” A tough guy in a tattoo parlor sees a tat on Hutch’s wrist and backs right down; he knows what that means. Soon, a group of goons threaten a young woman on a bus Hutch happens to be on, and we’re off to the races.

The fight choreography and bone-snapping editing give us a clear view of the carnage. Odenkirk trained for over two years to master Hutch’s lethal moves, and it shows. Is it easier to get a performance out of a nonactor but professional fighter (say, Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire) or to hire an actor and train them to fight? In this case, Odenkirk brings a resigned slouch to his pre-violent scenes as the retired hit-man turned family man (he has a wife, played by Connie Nielsen, and two kids). Hutch once thought he wanted the quiet life, but after some years away from the bloodshed he wants back in. He doesn’t really suffer any great tragedy to push him back into the fray. He’s just tired of, as the first song in the movie underlines, being misunderstood.

Hutch runs afoul of a Russian gang, led by casually vicious Aleksei Serebryakov. He could take them on alone, but where’s the fun in that? Hutch enlists the aid of two men whose identities I won’t spoil, and just the sight of them joining in the mayhem is boundlessly entertaining. Nobody made me deeply happy not in spite of but because of its dedication to gritty, grunting, gore-splattered climaxes. I liked the reasoning behind Hutch letting the two thieves go at the beginning: as someone well-acquainted with true evil, Hutch didn’t sniff it on these nitwits. Hutch’s wife and son, it turns out, don’t know him very well; they take him for a boring wimp. His little daughter on some level knows what he is; she feels safe with him.

Some fans are already agitating for sequels, or a crossover set in the John Wick-verse. I say let Hutch (and Odenkirk, who’s 58 and probably doesn’t have many more Nobodys in him physically, though I have no doubt he could still kick my ass) stroll off into the sunset and take pride in a job well done. Not everything has to be a franchise. As it is, this plays like the sort of outstanding but obscure action tape you used to find on the bottom shelf of a mom-n-pop video store, a fierce one-and-done. Its story is complete. Hutch came back once; he doesn’t need to keep coming back. By its very energy and happy ingenuity, Nobody argues pretty persuasively for Hutch’s violent past, at least as the subject of a solar-plexus-punching B movie. It’d be depressing in real life. And the other side of Odenkirk’s phenomenal performance is that Hutch, we sense, knows just how depressing. Odenkirk shows us the contradiction of the samurai, many of whom were also Buddhist. Also there’s a dude who gets chest-bumped with a fucking Claymore.