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

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

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“I’m a 51-year-old who likes cats better than people.” That’s how Lee Israel describes herself in Marielle Heller’s film “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” It’s a biopic with Israel as its subject and an adaptation of her 2008 memoir of the same name. It follows her experience as a struggling writer who ends up making ends meet by forging coveted letters from famous deceased authors.

Melissa McCarthy makes a welcomed dramatic turn playing Lee Israel who has fallen on hard times after her writing career stalls. She’s a depressed and cash-strapped alcoholic who can’t keep a job and owes months of back-rent on her filthy Manhattan apartment. She can’t get an advance for a new book because she has burned every bridge her agent (a wonderful Jane Curtin) has laid down for her.

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You know where things go from here. A desperate Lee begins forging old letters and selling them to bookstores around the city. The true story goes that she sold over 400 documents, a remarkable crime streak that would seem impossible to pull off. The real Lee Israel was an unrepentant sham and the film definitely captures that. But Heller makes an obvious attempt to lace Israel’s story with sympathy.

McCarthy gives a good performance although it doesn’t require as much range as it may seem. She burrows down into Israel’s unlikability and isn’t asked to go much further. She still manages to give us an good character with several interesting layers. Take what is probably her deepest character flaw – the near arrogant insistence that she is a great writer and everyone needs to recognize it. At one point she states “I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker”. And the film offers no grand transformation. She maintains this stance to the very end even finding a way to use it to rationalize her crimes.

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Richard E. Grant is getting a lot of attention for playing Lee’s only non-feline friend Jack. Grant is effortlessly good in what is a flamboyant and pretty showy performance. Jack is a fellow boozer and much like Lee he’s far from the most likable person. McCarthy and Grant have really nice chemistry and that makes for some entertaining back-and-forths between two otherwise shady people. Unfortunately I began to sour on their banter after a while.

Even though we know how things are going to end, Heller along with screenwriters Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty give us enough to sink our teeth into. But it’s McCarthy who pulls off the impossible. She not only has us caring (to some degree) about such an unpleasant curmudgeon but also (in one way or another) she has us relating to her as well. That can’t be an easy task and it’s just enough to carry the film over the finish line.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

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REVIEW: “Crazy Rich Asians”

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When I first saw the title “Crazy Rich Asians” I couldn’t figure out if it was an ill-advised (and cringe-worthy) attempt at racial humor or an inside joke aimed at those within the culture. Turns out I was overthinking things and neither are entirely true. “Crazy Rich Asians” is based on Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel of the same name. Kwan told Daily Beast “I wanted to introduce a contemporary Asia to a North American audience.” Short, simple and sweet.

This surprise hit of the summer is directed by John Chu from a screenplay written by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim. At its core “Crazy Rich Asians” is a satirical basting of the culture of excess and decadence. Chu doesn’t hold back in highlighting the lavish lifestyles of his subjects. It is extravagance to the extreme. But at the same time the movie sports a ton of something I wasn’t expecting – heart.

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Things start fast and a little shaky. Within just a couple of scenes we are introduced to an New York University economics professor named Rachel (Constance Wu) who is invited by her longtime boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding) to travel to Singapore to attend a wedding and meet his family. When they board the plane and are ushered to the swanky first class section, Rachel learns Nick’s big secret. He comes from a very wealthy family. And I mean they are loaded.

“Crazy Rich Asians” feels pretty familiar right out of the gate. As Rachel is introduced to Nick’s broad assortment of pampered family members and friends we see the movie bend towards some rather routine romantic comedy tropes and character types. A couple of supporting characters dance dangerously close to overkill in their roles as comic relief.

But there is a subtle shift after the opening act that moves the film into more dramatic territory while maintaining a measured sense of humor. This is where my perception of “Crazy Rich Asians” changed and it began to reel me in. While romance is at its heart, it also deals with class-based and cultural biases, traditionalism, etc. Much of this is channeled through Nick’s mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh). She could easily be portrayed as a paper-thin codger, but she has actual depth and her cold-hearted obstinance is rooted in personal experiences from her past.

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Several other supporting characters bring different perspectives to the story. Gemma Chan plays Astrid, a close cousin of Nick’s, quiet and proper but with her own set of upper-class troubles. One the other end of the spectrum is Peik Lin (played by Awkwafina). She’s an old friend of Rachel’s who lives with her parents in Singapore. Her goofy and eccentric personality is almost too much but she is dialed back at just the right time.

“Crazy Rich Asians” is a Cinderella story of sorts but with a cruel edge to it. Amid its unbridled opulence and glamorous eye-candy is a nasty center which gives the movie a bite. Rachel faces pretty harsh backlash from some of Nick’s more unaccepting kin. She’s targeted for her social status, meager upbringing, and nationality among other things. Chu deftly handles these various shades of bigotry, never allowing them to swallow up the fun and humor while giving them the sting they should have. It’s one of several things the film offers that you rarely see out of this genre.

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“Crazy Rich Asians” doesn’t reinvent the romantic comedy or stretch it in any new directions. The ‘fish out of water’, ‘meet the parents’, and ‘rags meets riches’ story elements have been done many times before. This film simply does them better. The fashion porn, food porn, jewelry porn, real estate porn, party porn, it’s all fun. The eye-popping Singapore skylines are beautifully shot. But what sets this movie apart is its heart and the undeniable human element it never loses sight of.

The all-Asian cast has been a huge point of praise and it’s definitely a stride forward for Hollywood. But what does it say about American moviegoers? There are many great movies with all-Asian casts. They simply require us to look beyond our self-made boundaries to discover them. So just maybe “Crazy Rich Asians” will not only inspire a change in Hollywood, but also with the way some audiences watch movies.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Come Morning”

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The very existence of “Come Morning” is a testimony to a love of cinema that transcends the routine Hollywood formula. It’s the same deep appreciation for film and process that independent filmmakers have been showcasing for decades as they plow their own paths to tell their own stories. For writer, director, cinematographer, and editor Derrick Sims that love for the form oozes out of every frame of his movie.

The film’s production is an inspiring story in itself. It was shot in just twelve days and with a crew of only ten people, many of whom tackled multiple roles. Sims shot on location near his childhood home of Kingsland, Arkansas during a chilly early winter and with the bulk of the scenes taking place at night. Yet despite the limitations of an extremely tight budget, Sims never allows for himself to be handcuffed creatively.

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This Deep South suspense thriller is set in 1973 rural Arkansas. Frank (Michael Ray Davis) prepares to take his grandson D (Thor Wahlestedt) out for an afternoon hunt amid the cryptic protests of his concerned wife (Elise Rovinsky). It’s clear to us that her worries are rooted in something deeper than an old man and a young boy going hunting. But Sims doesn’t tell us everything. Instead he wisely allows up to pick up bits of information along the way.

As we stubborn men tend to do, Frank ignores the pleas of his wife and takes D to their spot in the woods. Believing they have shot a deer, the pair discover they have accidentally killed Marion Mitchell (Thomas Moore), a trespassing neighbor with the volatile history with Frank’s family. D wants to call the police, but Frank decides to hide the body deeper into the woods, one of several complex moral decisions with hefty consequences.

As the story pulls Frank and D further from home a sense of dread settles over the film. We know things are not going to go well. As with before, Sims doesn’t spell everything out for us. Instead the backstory takes form through small pieces of conversations and a handful of flashbacks, some more effective than others. And as things steadily grow darker, we watch young D’s innocence being chiseled away in one scene after another.

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Adding to our overall unease is how Sims deftly creates atmosphere and tension. Much of it is through the arresting cinematography. Again, the bulk of the film takes place at night yet despite that potential hurdle Sims is able to create a convincing sense of place. It is especially seen in the landscapes which are visualized in such a way as to be both beautiful and foreboding. And when accompanied by Justin Slaughter’s striking and understated score, it’s all the more effective.

“Come Morning” tells a simple yet compelling story while pulling us into a place shrewdly realized through Sims’ camera. And despite being patient with its reveals, the film maintains a crisp and economical pace throughout within its taut 80 minute frame. There are instances where the money constraints can be felt, but the film shows that even miniscule budgets can’t overthrow a good story especially when it lies in the hands of a confident filmmaker with a clear vision.

“Come Morning” is available on Amazon Prime. Give it a look and tell me what you think.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Chappaquiddick”

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On July 18, 1969, Massachusetts Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy left a party on  Chappaquiddick Island with Mary Jo Kopechne. A short time later Kennedy drove his mother’s 1967 Oldsmobile off Dike Bridge and into Poucha Pond. Kennedy escaped but Kopechne was trapped in the submerged vehicle. Kennedy would leave the scene and not report the accident until the next morning after the car and Kopechne’s dead body had been discovered.

“Chappaquiddick” from director John Curran is the latest look into the scandal that was forever a stain on the legacy of Ted Kennedy. Writers Taylor Allen and Tyler Logan scoured over transcripts featuring key players including Kennedy himself speaking under oath. Leaning heavily on court records and testimonies along with the indisputable facts of the case allowed for their script to be more than conspiracy theories and character assassination as a few have claimed.

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Jason Clarke gives not only one of the best performances of the year but one of the most surprising as Ted Kennedy. You immediately notice how distinctly in tune he is with his character. He manages a very measured performance, playing Kennedy in a way that never projects judgement. He portrays Kennedy as a complex man. At times immature and naive. Other times self-serving and calculated. But in the few moments where he is forced to emotionally reckon with what’s happened Clarke doesn’t spell out the genuineness of the remorse.

Curran moves the story along at a good pace, quickly getting to the infamous Chappaquiddick incident then navigating the decisions that immediately followed. You could call Ed Helms the moral conscious of the film. He plays Kennedy’s cousin Joe Gargan who along with US Attorney General and Kennedy confident Joe Markham (Jim Gaffigan) are the first people Teddy contacts after the wreck. They push Kennedy to report the accident to authorities, something history informs us never happened until the next day.

A big hunk of the film focuses on the aftermath, specifically political damage control. As Kennedy wages an internal struggle with telling the truth, or at least their “version of it”, an entourage of lawyers and analysts diligently work to quell any public outrage and protect the family name. There are some really good scenes as they hammer out strategies and navigating Kennedy’s sketchy timeline of events.

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Attempts at empathy can be found in the few scenes of Kennedy family drama but unfortunately these are easily the movie’s weakest moments. Bruce Dern dials it up as Kennedy patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. who was paralyzed and wheelchair bound following a severe stroke. The filmmakers leave no ambiguity in Kennedy Sr’s lack of confidence in his son and they present the strained relationship as a heavy weight Teddy’s neck. But where most of the film comes across as strikingly authentic, the handful of scenes between Clarke and Dern feel too contrived. One line early in the film is broader but more effective at conveying the tension. An interviewer asks Ted “What’s it like walking in a shadow?” He promptly ends the interview and walks away.

The true cleverness of “Chappaquiddick” is seen in how it moves with Kennedy’s evolving story in a way that by the end of the film we are still unclear on what’s the truth. It also presents a slice of the Kennedy mystique within American culture. When the partygoers on Chappaquiddick Island are told about the accident the next morning and about the death of their friend and colleague, the first words of response are “What do we need to do now? What do we need to do to help the Senator?” It’s as if Mary Jo Kopechne lost out to the Kennedy family name. In a very perceptive way this movie finally gives her a voice.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “The Cloverfield Paradox”

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Paradox: (noun) a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth.

Cloverfield: (noun-ish) a kooky yet cool concoction from J.J. Abrams featuring a series of movies seemingly revolving around the same cataclysmic event. Kind of. But not really.

What started in 2008 as a simple yet effective found-footage horror movie has blossomed into a surprisingly successful feature film franchise. The original “Cloverfield” was followed by 2016’s “10 Cloverfield Lane”. Now two years later we get a third installment, “The Cloverfield Paradox” and a fourth is due out in October.

One of the fascinating things about these movies are how each (so far) are from different horror movie sub-genres. “Cloverfield” was a monster horror movie while the second film was a psychological thriller. “The Cloverfield Paradox” is a straight science fiction horror movie taking place mostly in space. All three are openly influenced by other films but are unique within their franchise. But defining the franchise as a whole, well that’s a bit tricky.

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“The Cloverfield Paradox” takes place in 2028 which immediately separates it from the previous movies. The earth has been crippled by a global energy crisis and nations have joined together to launch the Cloverfield space station. The station is manned by a multinational crew of technicians and scientists who are preparing for an experiment which could lead to an infinite energy supply for the entire planet. But tin-foil hatters warn that the experiment could rip a hole in the space-time continuum allowing all sorts of bad things to happen.

On earth, communications officer Ava Hamilton (Guga Mbatha-Raw) reluctantly leaves behind her husband Michael (Roger Davies) to join the Cloverfield mission. The station’s crew consists of several good faces: Daniel Oyelowo, Daniel Brühl, Zhang Ziyi, Chris O’Dowd, John Ortiz, and Aksel Hennie. Each come from different backgrounds and have their own perspectives about the mission and the chaos down on earth. Sometimes the planetside political tensions bleed over onto the station and the film smartly explores that dynamic. Perhaps not as much as it could have.

Needless to say the experiment doesn’t go exactly as planned and the crew begin noticing a series of creepy anomalies. At the same time officials on earth have lost contact with the Cloverfield and the situation on the ground has worsened. The film tries to juggle time on the space station with Michael’s time on earth, but it’s Michael’s side that feels a little underserved. For the crew it turns into a survival horror story as they try to undue what their experiment has done.

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“Paradox” operates much differently than its predecessors. At the same time its story rhythms and some of the character treatments lean heavily on the movies that inspired it. You can’t help but notice it. There are times when the familiarity and predictability are a bit much. Also you can see potential in some of the story threads they begin but do little with. Still, I tend to have a soft spot for these types of genre pieces so the issues weren’t hard to get past especially considering all the movie does well. It stocks a good cast and the performances hit there marks. The production design and special effects are impressive and Bear McCreary’s score hearkens back to 90’s era adventures – big and persistent but fitting. Most importantly, “Paradox” sprinkles in some clever clues as to how it is connected to the overall “Cloverfield” franchise.

Director Julius Onah and writer Oren Uziel have been attached to the project since 2012 when it used the developmental title of “God Particle”. It was eventually confirmed to be the next Cloverfield film but faced numerous delays. The true stroke of advertising genius (and guts) came February 4, 2018, Super Bowl Sunday. A teaser trailer debuted proclaiming the movie would be available immediately following the big game. No press tour or pre-release trailer campaign. It marked a new attention-getting approach for the industry.

So where does “The Cloverfield Paradox” fit in? Let’s just say you could call it a prequel. That’s my take on it and I enjoyed how this film brought me to that conclusion. But many people have left it with a much different reaction and with their critical guns have been blazing. Sure, it’s a traditional sci-fi horror picture that doesn’t break new ground outside of its slick advertising trick. But is it really trying to break new ground? I would argue it’s trying to make a fun, intriguing “Cloverfield” installment. Speaking for myself, mission accomplished.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS