REVIEW: “Greenland” (2020)

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Except for the very rare surprise, you usually know exactly what you’re going to get with a Gerard Butler movie. It’ll either be silly, bombastic, and with more corn than a pan of Jiffy Pop or (if you’re lucky) a so-bad-it’s-good guilty pleasure. His latest film “Greenland” definitely falls within the “very rare surprise” category. Even more, it’s one of Butler’s best films in years; one that takes the familiar end-of-the-world idea and uses it to explore human nature in a surprisingly thoughtful way.

One of the biggest and most welcomed changes is that in “Greenland” Butler doesn’t play some invulnerable butt-kicking one-man-army. He’s not ex-special forces, ridiculously gun savvy, or spitting out machismo in ever line of dialogue. He’s a structural engineer. He has a son who is diabetic. And he’s trying to repair his fractured marriage. In other words he plays a character grounded in the real world. Kudos to screenwriter Chris Sparling for making that a focus of his script and to director Ric Roman Waugh for building his movie around the human element and avoiding the temptation to go big and loud.

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Image Courtesy of STX Entertainment

Not to be misleading, “Greenland” is still a disaster thriller. It has its nail-biting tension and explosive action. But those scenes in some way always serve the characters or the film’s human interests. It doesn’t wallow in scene after scene of CGI destruction nor does it waste time numbing our senses with inconsequential noise. In fact, audiences might be surprised at how much the film sticks to its convictions.

Butler reminds us that he has charisma and some acting chops playing John Garrity. We first meet him as he’s overseeing construction of an Atlanta skyscraper. But his mind isn’t on his work. He stares at his phone where a picture of his estranged wife Allison (Morena Baccarin) and young son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd) brings a swell of emotion. We learn more about their separation later, but Allison has just allowed John to come back home. You can sense the hurt and uncertainty between them once he arrives. Meanwhile Nathan is just happy to have his father back.

As you probably know, disaster movies come pre-packaged with some kind of global threat. This time it’s an interstellar comet affectionately nicknamed “Clark” by scientists and the news media. It’s set to pass by earth with only a few harmless fragments expected to reach the atmosphere (yea right, “harmless”). As the cable news networks provide around-the-clock coverage, people put together neighborhood watch parties for this once in a lifetime event. But then the first fragment (predicted by “experts” to evaporate in the atmosphere) crashes into Florida evaporating the city of Tampa. Needless to say it changes everything.

As more fragments approach, the government remains secretive in hopes of avoiding mass panic. Guess how that works. John receives a presidential alert on his phone telling him that he and his family are among a chosen group of citizens ordered to report to select military bases. Once there they will be checked in and then flown to an underground bunker in a secret undisclosed location. But when those not selected get wind of it they flock to the bases pleading to be allowed on the planes. And as more cities are decimated and with an “extinction level event” just 48 hours away, society begins to break down. This proves to be the biggest obstacle between Jack and his family and the safety of the secret bunker.

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Image Courtesy of STX Entertainment

At different points in the story Jack, Allison, and Nathan get separated, something the film uses to explore the different facets of human nature. They encounter every make and model of humanity – some full of compassion and self-sacrifice, others who are malicious and opportunistic. It’s an unexpected layer of the story that really highlights one of the movie’s biggest interests. What does it look like when society begins to crumble? How does it look when kindness clashes with malice; when empathy meets callousness?

Adding to the film’s list of surprises, “Greenland” is consistently entertaining and never hits a lull. That’s because the whole thing is really about something more than comets and mass destruction. It’s about family. Yes we learn more about the government’s mysterious selection process and there is some interesting social commentary to boot. But it all comes back to the beauty of family; to fully appreciating what family means and the self-sacrifice required to grow it and protect it. I have to admit, that wasn’t what I was expecting when I heard Gerard Butler was doing a movie about an earth-killing comet. “Greenland” is now streaming on VOD.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Gunda” (2020)

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I’ve always been amazed by cinema’s ability to take the simplest idea and turn it into something powerful and deeply affecting. It’s a mark of great moviemaking that has impacted generations since the birth of the industry. For a more recent example look no further than the quietly meditative and subtly message-minded “Gunda” from Russian filmmaker Viktor Kossakovsky. The film also sports Joaquin Phoenix as its executive producer.

This Norwegian documentary sees Kossakovsky directing, co-writing, co-editing as well as sharing cinematography duties. Shot in stunning high-contrast black-and-white, “Gunda” opens with a gorgeous still shot of a small wood pigsty. A sow lays on a bed of hay, its head partially out of the sty basking in the sun’s warm glow. The camera sits on the shot, admiring its simplicity and beauty. Then we notice movement in the shadows. Tumbling over its mother and out the doorway is a tiny piglet followed by another and then another. The shot cuts to inside where we get a clearer picture of what’s going on. Gunda, the eponymous sow is giving birth. It’s a beautiful scene and a clear introduction to the kind of film Kossalovsky has for us.

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Image Courtesy of NEON

“Gunda” shrewdly brings us into the farm animal’s world, immersing us in the everyday minutiae of farm life from their distinct perspective. To emphasize their point-of-view Kossalovsky is always shooting from his subject’s eye level. And when mixed with Alexandr Dudarev’s sublime sound design you get the indescribable sensation of not only being present but within arms length. Take an exquisitely captured sequence when Gunda and her piglets go for a stroll in the farmyard. The unintrusive camera subtly follows the rambunctious little ones at ground level, watching as they root and roughhouse while mama keeps a watchful eye. With the extraordinary closeness comes a certain unshakable intimacy and the clarity of the images means we catch every astonishing detail.

There are the occasional shifts to other livestock that almost work as interludes to Gunda’s story. One features a resilient one-legged chicken who refusing to let his disability slow him down. Later we watch cows burst out of a barn and then run across the field like kids on a playground racing to their favorite spot. Neither segment can cleanly escape feeling a little like filler. Yet both are shot with the same equally captivating photography and both feed into the film’s goal of getting its audience to reconsider how they think of farm animals.

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Image Courtesy of NEON

But Gunda and her piglets are the stars and the film always comes back to them after a chunk of time has passed. As the film moves forward and the piglets get older, an impending sense of doom sets in. Interestingly not a single human being is ever seen on screen nor a single voice ever heard. We only see the marks of their presence. But over time the audience is faced with the inevitable realization that it’s the humans who are the determiners of fate. This is shown with heartbreaking clarity in the film’s heartbreaking final moments.

While its message is crystal clear “Gunda” never lectures or browbeats. There’s no music to guide our emotions or narration to explain what we’re seeing. It doesn’t frame or stealthily edit scenes for dramatic effect. Instead “Gunda” asks its audience to observe, absorb and ponder. It’s unflinching dedication to its vision could prove too tedious for some. But for those able to fall in with the movie’s gorgeous poetic rhythm, it’s sure to resonate in a number unexpected ways. All while showcasing what Paul Thomas Anderson could only describe as “pure cinema”. “Gunda” received a limited release December 11th.

VERDICT- 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Godmothered” (2020)

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Only in a magical place called Motherland can aspiring fairy godmothers learn to plow their trade. And only in Motherland will you find June Squibb as the resident DJ proclaiming “It’s time to party like it’s 1699.” Actually there are a lot of amusing touches like that all through Disney’s upcoming family film “Godmothered”.

From director Sharon Maguire and co-writers Kari Granlund and Melissa Stack, “Godmothered” is a light, warm, and big-hearted fantasy comedy with just enough seasonal cheer to please Christmas movie fans. Its playful spirit and some charming performances carry it most of the way. But a very specific lack of originality and a bludgeoning final scene make it fall a little short of being perennial holiday viewing.

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Image Courtesy of Disney+

Within minutes you can’t help but see the film’s biggest inspiration/problem. I don’t know how else to say it, but so much of “Godmothered” seems copied straight from 2003’s “Elf”. First is the concept, a kind-hearted outcast soul leaving a magical land to impart happiness and cheer to people who have lost it. A fish-out-of-water lead character visits a big American city for the first time. Sound familiar? Well it gets even more obvious than that. We even get specific gags and plot points shamelessly plucked right out of the Jon Favreau Christmas classic. There’s even a racoon!

Yet despite all that, “Godmothered” has an almost infectious charm much of which comes from it star Jillian Bell. She plays Eleanor, Motherland’s youngest fairy godmother trainee and the school’s only new applicant for decades. Turns out the world has stopped believing in “Happily Ever After” meaning fewer assignments for the godmothers. Because of this Moira (Jane Curtain), the head mistress and a strict enforcer of the outdated godmothering ‘formula’, is prepared to shut down the school and reassign the godmothers to dreaded tooth fairy duty.

Having none of it, Eleanor finds an old letter from 10-year-old McKenzie Walsh that fell through the cracks. Determined to prove the world still needs fairy godmothers, she secretly sets out to find McKenzie and grant her ‘happily ever after’ wish. The trail takes her to Boston where she quickly discovers McKenzie (played by Isla Fisher) is no longer 10-years-old. Instead she’s a cynical single mother of two who lost her husband years earlier and has given up on any chance at true happiness.

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Image Courtesy of Disney+

If you’ve seen “Elf” you know exactly where this story goes almost beat for beat. But the movie does bring a few laughs of its own and moments of genuine feeling. Fisher and Bell turn out to be real assets with surprisingly good comic chemistry. Both bring a sense of sincerity to their characters that offer emotional connections amid all of the silly fun. A smattering of good supporting performances fill out the story including the quirky Squib, Santiago Cabrera as McKenzie’s Clark Kent-ish co-worker, and Mary Elizabeth Ellis as McKenzie’s down-to-earth sister.

Still it’s hard to get past the lingering feelings of “I’ve seen this before”. And the film’s message, while handled well most of the way, is slammed home in a cringy, heavy-handed final speech that throws any hint of subtlety and nuance out the window. It’s hard not to like the film’s characters and the team of Fisher and Bell add sparkle and heart to an otherwise wacky premise. If only its lack of originality wasn’t so hard to overlook. “Godmothered” premieres December 4th exclusively on Disney+.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Glorias” (2020)

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“The Glorias” has all the ingredients for a really good biopic: a provocative personality as its subject, a stellar female-driven cast, and plenty of historical ground to cover. So it’s disappointing to find Amazon’s new Gloria Steinem biography to be such a slow, hard to connect with grind. Despite its admirable efforts the movie gets too creative for its own good, bouncing us back-and-forth along Steinem’s timeline, never allowing us to get firmly planted in her character or her story.

The movie is directed by Julie Taymor from a screenplay she co-wrote with Sarah Ruhl. It’s really hard to identify their goal mainly because their movie is so scattered and unfocused. Even worse, so much time is spent checking off boxes from her political activist résumé that we never get to know her personally. Most of the personal bits are just patched in and then left with practically no emotional detail whatsoever. This is especially true for the film’s second half which is kinda like reading Steinem’s Wikipedia page.

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Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The first half of the movie is all over the map, trying to cover Steinem’s childhood, her teenage years with her mother in Toledo, even her sabbatical in India. There are few times where it bolts ahead to her later political work but only briefly. While these points in Steinem’s life are touched on, they aren’t covered in a way that gives them weight. The closest we get are the early scenes where we see the connection between a young Gloria (played by Ryan Kiera Armstrong and later by Lulu Wilson) and her kind but cash-strapped father (Timothy Hutton).

Alicia Vikander plays Gloria through her twenties and thirties. Her part of the story attempts to cover the most ground, from the wobbly scenes in India to the more pointed moments highlighting the sexism she faced as a young journalist. She begins dipping her toes in feminism, meeting and befriending several interesting people along the way who help shape her future activism. While her accent is a little shaky, Vikander does her best trying to bring something personal to scenes which never allow her stay in one place very long. It’s a tough assignment.

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Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Then out of the blue the entire movie settles in on Julianne Moore’s older Gloria. These scenes tease us with a handful of quieter moments where Gloria wrestles with her status and the expectations of others. But it too falls into the trap of checking boxes and moving from one career moment to another. Even the supporting characters are undersold. Take Bette Midler who quite literally shows up out of nowhere with practically no introduction whatsoever. She plays Bella Abzug and you better know who she is before watching the film. It all ends in a messy final act that throws so much stuff at the screen but to little effect.

“The Glorias” turns out be a frustrating misfire. It’s a shame considering the sizable talent of the cast and a meaty life it has to explore. There are some bold choices by the filmmakers such as a reoccurring bus ride where the Glorias from different eras talk among themselves. They make for the occasionally good segue from one time period to the next. But the film ends up being so interested in showing Steinem’s days as a feminist icon that it often forgets the human element. And it stays away from any of her complexities and controversies leaving us with a fairly one-dimensional portrayal. “The Glorias” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

VERDICT- 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “Greyhound” (2020)

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By now it’s pretty obvious that Tom Hanks can do just about anything on screen. Think about it. In his 40-year film career he has been a baseball coach, an astronaut, an Irish gangster, a pilot, a newspaper editor-in-chief, a wooden toy cowboy. Heck he’s even played Walt Disney and Mr. Rogers. His latest movie “Greyhound” puts him on familiar ground – playing a ship’s captain (he did that in “Captain Phillips”) during World War II (“Saving Private Ryan” of course).

“Greyhound” was originally picked up by Sony Pictures for an early June theater release. But like many films, it was delayed following the COVID-19 outbreak. In a bold move Apple acquired worldwide distribution rights from Sony for a whopping $70 million. Now the movie is set to premiere July 10th on their relatively new Apple TV+ streaming service and it instantly adds some real heft to their platform. That’s a lot of money, but it turned out to be a really good grab.

“Greyhound” is the sophomore effort from director Aaron Schneider and his first film since his quirky 2010 Southern drama “Get Low”. This is (obviously) a much different movie. It’s based on C. S. Forester’s 1955 novel “The Good Shepherd” with Hanks starring and also writing the screenplay (his first script since 2011’s “Larry Crowne”). It’s set in February 1942, shortly after the United States entered World War II and takes place in the heart of the Battle of the Atlantic.

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Photo Courtesy Apple Originals

Hanks plays Captain Ernest Krause, a career Navy officer who is finally given his first command aboard the Fletcher-class destroyer Greyhound. After a quick two months of training with his new crew, Krause is sent to the North Atlantic where he is tasked with escorting 37 merchant ships carrying soldiers and vital supplies to the allies in England. But to get there he must lead them across The Black Pit, a treacherous area out of air support range and swarming with German U-boats. For over 50 hours the convoy would be completely on their own.

Schneider’s tightly packaged war thriller wastes no time ratcheting up the tension. Within five minutes we’re in a white-knuckled game of cat-and-mouse as six German submarines (menacingly called a wolfpack) begin circling the convoy like sharks around their prey. It makes for some thrilling naval combat where instinct and strategy is as much the focus as torpedoes and cannon fire. The film does a great job of making every decision feel like a high-stakes decision. And from the blasts of ocean spray to the boom of the 5″ 38 caliber deck guns, when the action comes the intensity and sense of peril is palpable.

In addition to shooting exhilarating combat, cinematographer Shelly Johnson’s tight-quartered camerawork moves fluidly throughout the cramped ship and around the deck, capturing the close-knit synergy of the crew and putting us right in the middle of it. His crafty framing mixed with Mark Czyzewski and Sidney Wolinsky’s crisp editing keeps things moving at a high-energy pace while adding gravity to each Captain’s order and every exchange between sailors. And thankfully we never get lost in the slew of rapid-fire Navy jargon. Hanks (the writer) pens dialogue that’s organic, believable, and most importantly comprehensible for those of us without our sea legs.

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Photo Courtesy of Apple Originals

“Greyhound” is obviously Tom Hanks’ movie, but no other character even rises to the point of being memorable. There are no bad performances and everyone plays their roles well. But you’ll be hard-pressed to remember anyone other than Krause. Yet it works because Hanks (as you would expect) is terrific and a natural fit for his character. His expressions speak volumes and you never doubt an action he takes or an emotion he relays.

As for his script, Hanks borrows the outline for Krause from Forester’s book, but passes on many of the details. For example Hanks hints at but doesn’t explore Krause’s bouts with insecurity and self-doubt. Instead his film version shows a confident captain with a steady hand yet with quieter concerns. Little is made of it being his first command either narratively or dramatically. Hanks also gives Krause a love interest played by Elizabeth Shue, but frankly it amounts to nothing more than a cameo and their relationship is only skimmed over in a brief opening scene.

That’s because “Greyhound” is all about fully immersing its audience in the critical tactics and perilous execution of World War II naval combat. For a taut 90 minutes the film sticks to that focus, carrying its viewers across the enemy-infested North Atlantic and putting us into the heads of the men navigating it. It could have done more with its characters or built more of a backstory. But it’s the willingness to stick to its guns (no pun intended) that makes the movie such a thrilling war-time experience. “Greyhound” premieres July 10th on Apple TV+”

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

RETRO REVIEW: “Gremlins” (1984)

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For the past few months I’ve dedicated Wednesdays to doing Retro Reviews. The way it works is I put up three options on my Twitter feed (you can follow me @KeithandMovies). Followers vote, I rewatch the movie, and then post the review the following Wednesday. Whatever film finishes second comes back the next week against two new choices. So basically you pick what I watch and review.

Going into last week’s poll I had a pretty good feeling how it was going to turn out. Sure enough “Gremlins” won in a landslide. I can’t say I’m disappointed. “Gremlins” is a movie I first saw during its original summer 1984 theater run and it’s a movie I watched countless times once it came out on VHS. But it has been years since I last sat down and watched it. So I looked forward to seeing it again with a pair of fresh eyes.

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Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros.

“Gremlins” was directed by Joe Dante in what would easily be the biggest film of his career. He worked from a script written by Chris Columbus. While doing a little business in Chinatown, a struggling inventor Rand Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) stops in an old antique shop to get his son a Christmas gift before heading home. Tucked away in the back is a cute little mogwai – adorable but with three very important rules. Don’t get them wet. Keep them out of the light (especially sunlight). And most importantly, no matter how much they beg, never feed them after midnight.

Rand returns home to the quaint town of Kingston Falls. He surprises his son Billy (Zach Galligan) with his new pet which they name Gizmo. Billy is an all-around good guy who works as a bank teller but aspires to be a comic book artist. He also has his eye on his co-worker Kate played by Phoebe Cates (I mean who wouldn’t). They, along with the comical array of townsfolk we meet, have pretty normal lives. That is until those critical mogwai rules are broken. Soon Kingston Falls is overran by devilish gremlins who throw this once cozy little community into absolute, unfettered chaos.

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Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Dante has a blast embracing every facet of this sci-fi, horror, comedy, creature-feature. He, Columbus, and executive producer Steven Spielberg start with a heavy emphasis on the cute and cuddly Gizmo. The first 30 minutes alone probably sold countless stuffed animals. But they let it rip in the wild, rambunctious, and often riotous second half which is probably best epitomized in one hysterically anarchic bar scene. It’s a preposterous mix of comedy and violent mischief that cracked me up the same way it did years ago.

Interestingly this was Galligan’s first movie role and easily the biggest role of his career. Cates would appear in a few more films before retiring from acting in 1994. Both do well in this wacky movie rich with running gags, laugh-out-loud humor, creature mayhem, and a healthy splash of 80’s nostalgia. While some of the lines feel a bit dated, overall the movie has aged well and it has the some fun, over-the-top energy that made it such a big hit in 1984.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars