First Glance: “Greta” Trailer

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A couple of days ago I showed the trailer for “Ma”. The second 2019 movie featuring an unexpected actor/actress playing a creepy horror movie nutcase is “Greta” and it stars none other than Isabelle Huppert. This thing looks absolutely nuts (and that’s intended as a compliment).

Huppert looks to be having a blast playing a lonely French piano teacher turned raving psychopath and Chloë Grace Moretz plays the object of her mad obsession. These types of films can go either way, but I’m pretty intrigued.

“Greta” opens soon – March 1st to be exact. Check out the trailer below and let me know if you’ll be checking it out or giving it a pass.

REVIEW: “High Flying Bird”

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I have to admit I’ve always been a sucker for a good sports movie. Or course the key word is ‘good’. To be honest it’s a film genre that has had more than its share of hard-to-watch stinkers. But when one of these movies hits its mark, regardless of the sport it’s centered around, I’m usually quick to sing its praises.

Steven Soderbergh is the latest to walk the line between a good sports movie and a crappy one. His latest film “High Flying Bird” works from a screenplay by Tarell Alvin McCraney and is loosely based on the 2011 NBA lockout. As a filmmaker who likes to tackle a variety of subjects in a variety of different ways, this is a movie right up Soderbergh’s alley.

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André Holland plays Ray Burke, an industry-wise sports agent working hard to calm his antsy rookie client Erick (Melvin Gregg) during the NBA’s lockout. Ray knows the ins and outs of the business and the longer the work stoppage the deeper it digs into his own pockets. In some ways he resembles Tom Cruise’s Jerry McGuire – headstrong, ambitious, and confident. But Ray is far more cerebral and grounded in the real world.

 

Ray knows the stakes and he feels the pressure from both his client and his agency. With neither side of the labor dispute budging and negotiations at a standstill, Ray knows he has to do something. He begins by stealthily recruiting a former assistant (Zazie Beetz). He then starts tapping into his connections with the player’s union rep (Sonja Sohn) and the slick-as-silk spokesman for the owners (Kyle MacLachlan). With all the moxie he can muster, Ray puts together a plan that could either end the lockout or his career.

“High Flying Bird” is a very different kind of basketball movie. Soderbergh is much more interested in the business side of the sport than what happens on the court. You also get the sense Soderbergh is intrigued by the racial dynamic between white ownership and the star-studded predominantly black player base. And does he want us to see a real-world reflection in the NBA’s revenue sharing structure? He plays with these ideas without beating us over the head with them – just enough to prod us to think.

This is also the second straight film Soderbergh has shot on an iPhone (the first being last year’s “Unsane” with Claire Foy). It’s a fascinating technique that offers him some obvious freedoms which we see through camera angles, how some shots are framed, and even in how he uses lighting. Just as obvious are the limitations. By necessity most of Soderbergh’s camera craftiness is restricted to closed spaces and in how he shoots characters and conversations. Still it doesn’t undercut the movie’s value as a remarkable piece of minimalist filmmaking.

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“High Flying Bird” has so many things going for it. I can’t say enough about McCraney’s dense Sorkin-esque dialogue. And let me be clear, there is a ton of dialogue. But it works because McCraney and his characters all have something of value to say. And while it may be a tad too wordy, we get a keen insight into who these people are and what makes them tick. You also have a fantastic cast. Holland shows genuine leading man chops while every supporting role feels true to their world (I haven’t even mentioned Bill Duke who is great playing a wise father-figure to Ray).

And then you have Soderbergh, an eclectic filmmaker ever willing to dabble in any genre and toy around with any and all cinematic forms. Here he directs, edits, and shoots his movie while wisely leaning heavily on a robust script and some good performances. It may end up being a little too talky for some people. But for others who appreciate an audacious filmmaker who is impossible to pigeonhole, Netflix has a good one for you.

VERDICT –  4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Hunter Killer” (2018)

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Am I the only one waiting for Gerard Butler to have that Matthew McConaughey-like renaissance? You know, where he lands that one movie that taps back into the talent that we once saw glimpses of before the cavalcade of hard-to-digest slop started churning out? Well, I hate to say it but “Hunter Killer” ain’t it.

Gerry Butler’s movies have almost become an absurd event for me. I would be lying if I didn’t admit to getting some type of weird entertainment value out of them. They’re routinely bad and always offer some level of goofiness to laugh at (most of the time unintentionally). “Hunter Killer” take a different approach. It nearly drowns in its own self-seriousness. That being said, here’s something funny – “Hunter Killer” isn’t as bad as it has every right to be.

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Now let’s not get carried away. This isn’t the movie that puts Butler back on track. Simply put, it’s impossible to take any part of this three-pronged story seriously. And the further you go the more you realize that it’s doing nothing that you haven’t seen many, many times before.

After a United States submarine suspiciously disappears in arctic waters, first-time Commander Joe Glass (Butler) is ordered to investigate. He takes the USS Arkansas and his new crew to do some deep seas super-sleuthing. Not only does he discover the fate of the U.S. sub but he stumbles upon a sunken Russian sub that has been sabotaged from the inside. Among its lone survivors is a dignified Russian Admiral played by Michael Nyqvist.

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Meanwhile a four-man Navy SEAL team covertly airdrops into Russia where they are to secretly observe the goings-on at a suspicious Russian naval base. Their reconnaissance uncovers a coup led by a wild-eyed defense minister (Mikhail Gorevoy), so cartoony he could have been pulled from a late 80s comic book.

The third thread of this story takes place at the Pentagon where government officials scramble to make sense of all the intel pouring in from the Arkansas and the SEAL team. Gary Oldman grabs a quick paycheck as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs while a stone-faced Common plays an Admiral with the emotional depth of a block of wood. Linda Cardellini gets a thankless role as a security advisor. Their roles consist of expressing various levels of concern as highly dramatic music looms in the background.

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Nothing in this three-story structure works particularly well on its own. You’ll have a hard time finding an original idea or interesting character in any of the scenarios. But when they all come together it does offer up some mindless entertainment. The pacing is good (which is probably a smart thing) and there are a handful of good action sequences that injects a little welcomed energy. We also get another good performance from the late Michael Nyqvist. It’s one of his final roles.

But despite my ability to squeeze a little enjoyment out of “Hunter Killer”, it’s still a movie that sinks more than swims. Pretty much every thing it does is by the numbers and while some of the casting may catch your eye, they’re more or less doing the same – checking boxes and offering up the best super-serious mugging they can muster.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

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First Glance: “Ma” Trailer

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There seems to be a new wave of horror thrillers featuring unexpected actors or actresses playing terrorizing nutcases (more on that later in the week). I kinda like that. One of them sees (of all people) Octavia Spencer playing a small town hermit who woos teenagers to come party in her basement. She supplies the booze and the party space, but (as we see in the trailer) she’s not what you would call…stable.

The new trailer for “Ma” has dropped and it has some real potential especially with Spencer at the helm. Check it out below and let me know if you’ll be checking it out or giving it a pass.

REVIEW: “Monsters and Men”

monstersposterOf the recent wave of movies dealing with the subject of racism, one of the lesser talked about films is Reinaldo Marcus Green’s “Monsters and Men”. It premiered at Sundance 2018, was picked up for distribution by Neon, and was released in late September to very little buzz. That’s a shame because most of what we get works exceptionally well.

The movie is broken into three acts, each linked by a single incident that takes place in a Brooklyn neighborhood. The first two are the most organically connected while the third is more out on its own. It’s also the one story that is the most obvious and easily the most predictable. While the story seems ripped from the headlines, Green attempts to dig beneath them to show three unique perspectives and the impact the incident has on these three lives.

A powerful opening starts things on a strong foot. A law-abiding black man is driving through the city singing along to Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together”. For seemingly no reason blue lights flash and he’s pulled over. Director Green and his cinematographer Patrick Scola keep the camera on the driver’s face in an intense closeup that shows the boiling frustration but also the keen awareness of senseless danger. The black man is Dennis Williams (John David Washington), an off duty Brooklyn cop. We later discover it’s the sixth time he’s been pulled over in six months.

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The first act centers around Manny Ortega (Anthony Ramos) who lives in his mother’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood apartment with his expecting wife and their young daughter. While on his way to meet friends he witnesses an altercation between a local fixture Darius “Big D” Larson (Samuel Edwards) and the NYPD. Darius is shot dead and Manny captures it all on his phone. Now he must decide whether to share the footage with the world or keep it to himself and protect his family.

The second act moves back to Dennis, a well-respected police officer and devoted family man. His precinct faces strong public backlash following the shooting and Dennis struggles to make sense of it all. He’s a good cop who knows first-hand the reality of racial profiling in the department but also the dangers police officers face anytime they strap on the vest. Washington gives the film’s standout performance, deeply sensitive and effortlessly charismatic.

The third act doesn’t quite pack the punch of the other two and comes across as more calculated. It’s premise is good. Zyrick (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a promising high school baseball prospect who has pro scouts salivating. This excites his father (the always good Rob Morgan) who sees this as his son’s ticket out of the inner city. But after the shooting of Big D, Zyrick is compelled to join a protest group and let his voice be heard. But at what cost to his bright future?

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Green makes several interesting choices. First we never see the altercation between Big D and the police with our own eyes. Instead we see the reactions to the video from the film’s three key players. Perhaps most interesting is how none of the three stories have a tidy ending. Is it because we still don’t have a satisfying real-world answer? Is it to allow us to wrestle with and resolve their stories for ourselves? Either way I found it effective.

Despite losing steam in its third act, “Monsters and Men” maintains a steady sense of intimacy and relevance. Its stories feel personal and offer unique points of view on a smoldering current issue. And they’re told through several really good performances, especially from John David Washington. With only a handful of films under his acting belt, he’s already shown himself to be one of the industry’s most charismatic talents.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Cold Pursuit”

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It’s February so you know what that means – a new Liam Neeson movie. Late January and February have become synonymous with these Neeson action flicks in the vein of “Taken”, “Non-Stop”, and “The Commuter”. Not sure how that’s important but consider it information nonetheless.

Right out of the gate his new film “Cold Pursuit” has all the markings of a prototypical Neeson revenge thriller. A gravelly-voiced old-timer loses someone close to him. He then unleashes ‘a particular set of skills’ to find out who is responsible and offer up his own special brand of payback.

Nels Coxman (Neeson) spends his evenings plowing a lonely track of mountain road that connects the fictional tourist town of Kehoe to the rest of civilization. He’s a reserved fellow who lives on a hill outside of town with his wife Grace (a woefully underserved Laura Dern). Outside of helping Nels with his cufflinks, she is given nothing to do but stand in the background.

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The couple’s world is shattered when they get news that their son (played by Neeson’s real world son Micheal Richardson) is found dead of an apparent heroin overdose. Grace closes herself off and Nels doesn’t want to believe it. He gets news that his son’s death is linked to a posh, health food obsessed drug lord affectionately known as Viking (Tom Bateman). Nels sets out to kill the man responsible, cutting through any henchman who is dumb enough to get in his way.

“Cold Pursuit” is director Hans Petter Moland’s remake of his own 2014 Norwegian thriller “In Order of Disappearance”. From one perspective the movie offers up plenty of what Neeson’s fans enjoy. This once unexpected action star has developed a certain gravitas that fits really well with these types of movies. I’ll admit it’s fun to watch him dole out punishment on the wicked. Here the violence can be brutal but intentionally over-the-top which (in a rather perverse way) feels right for this story.

Another plus (and a genuine surprise for me) is the healthy dose of dark comedy that is spread throughout, sometimes at the weirdest and most unexpected moments. It does throw a kink in the overall tone, but I admit to really getting a kick out of it. Some of the humor feels too out of place, but when it lands it can be pretty funny. And in some cases it’s the humor alone that salvages certain scenes hampered by some real shortcomings with the story.

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One of the biggest disappointments is in how little attention Moland gives to the emotions of his characters most notably Nels. The film deals in some pretty heavy subject matter yet it only offers a couple of moments for Nels and Grace to show any hint of sorrow or pain. And as he starts offing Viking’s low-level thugs, he does so in the most detached and dispassionate way. It basically throws away the emotional weight Neeson’s character desperately needs. And as I said Laura Dern is squandered in a truly thankless role. There is a real opportunity to explore grief through them but Moland doesn’t seem at all interested in that.

Moland and writer Frank Baldwin throw in other narrative pieces that aren’t given enough attention to matter. There’s a wedged in custody battle between Viking and his ex-wife (Julia Jones). We also get a Native American drug gang that the movie seems to want to do some interesting things with but who end up serving as little more than a plot device.

So where do I land on “Cold Pursuit”? On one hand it offers up more of Neeson’s early year revenge-fueled action. Plus the unexpected dark humor adds a wacky layer that I enjoyed far more often than not. On the other hand you have the emotional blandness of the lead character and pretty much everyone else we see. They all operate at the exact same temperature. Sometimes it’s a struggle to find the humanity in anyone. And that’s without getting into the ending and the head-scratching loose ends it leaves dangling. So I land in the middle, completely aware of the movie’s sense of uniqueness but also bummed at how it misses a mark it could have easily hit.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

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