REVIEW: “The Tomorrow War” (2021)

When it comes to the new film “The Tomorrow War” you could waste a lot of time pointing out its flaws or picking apart the science. But that would be far more boring than the actual movie itself. Following some fairly mediocre promotion, I didn’t have high hopes for this sci-fi action blockbuster. But to my surprise “The Tomorrow War” is pure popcorn entertainment that delivers. It’s fun, energetic, and a visual feast that left me wishing I could have seen it on the big screen.

Originally slated as Paramount Pictures’ big budget 2020 Christmas Day release, “The Tomorrow War” was delayed due to COVID-19 and then shuffled around on their release schedule before eventually being sold to Amazon Studios. In a way the film highlights both the strengths and frustrations with the potential “streaming future”. By dropping it on Prime streaming, Amazon saved it from oblivion and gave their subscribers quick and easy access to it. At the same time this is a movie clearly made for the big screen and not having that option robbed viewers of that experience.

“The Tomorrow War” is the first live-action feature for director Chris McKay whose previous film credit was helming “The LEGO Batman Movie”. Here he’s working from a screenplay by Zach Dean that borrows from countless other sci-fi movie concepts and puts them all together in a filling, check-your-brain-at-the-door stew. The ever likable Chris Pratt puts on his best regular-guy charm and earnestness to play a cardigan-wearing high school biology teacher named Dan Forester. He has a loving wife Emmy (Betty Gilpin) and a 9-year-old sweetheart of a daughter daughter Muri (Ryan Keira Armstrong). But since leaving the military where he ran combat missions during his two tours in Iraq, the seemingly happy Dan has struggled to find his purpose.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Quite literally everything changes when a misty, crackling portal opens up on the field of a globally televised soccer match. Out of it walks a handful of super-serious soldiers from 28 years in the future who plead with the present day world to help them fight a war that humanity is losing. Their arrival sends the globe scrambling to help stave off human extinction. In the future war humanity is on its heels and has taken catastrophic losses. In an act of desperation, scientists from 2051 develop a shaky time travel tech in hopes of recruiting and bringing back soldiers and researchers from the past to help defeat the alien invaders.

Obviously a lot of questions pop up with the introduction of time travel into the story. Most notably, why not just travel to the time the aliens arrive and meet them head-on? For the most part McKay and Dean answer them all by stressing the technology’s unreliability and limitations. The scientists are able to jump people back-and-forth from these two set points on the timeline but not without some potentially deadly risks. Still have questions? Don’t worry, things happen later in the movie that plug a few more holes. It doesn’t all fit together seamlessly, but easily enough to get by.

Before long a world-wide draft is instituted and civilians including Dan are called to duty. It doesn’t sound bad at first with the news that deployments only last seven days. But the mood changes a bit when they’re informed the survival rate is less than 20%. Dan hits it off with a fellow draftee named Charlie, a chatty scientist full of nervous energy. He’s played by a terrific Sam Richardson who provides some perfectly modulated comic relief. With practically no training the ragtag group of ‘soldiers’ are sent to war-ravaged Miami Beach in 2051. But a fatal malfunction in the time jump forces Dan to lead what’s left of his unit. He’s contacted by a hardened Colonel (Yvonne Strahovski) who begins walking him through their mission. But Dan and his team quickly learn that it won’t be easy, especially after getting their first look at the alien threat.

The creatures are designed by Ken Barthelmey and have small resemblances to the Xenomorphs in “Aliens”, the Arachnids in “Starship Troopers”, and even the alien monsters in “A Quiet Place”. But Barthelmey’s creatures are distinctly his own. They’re labeled White Spikes because of their milky colored exterior and the piercing bone-like spikes they shoot from their flailing tentacles. They’re ferocious, terrifying, and sometimes attack in overwhelming packs (think the zombies in “World War Z”). They bring an palpable level of tension the film really needs.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

While the story builds itself around a cool and interesting concept, it’s the sheer action spectacle that stays with you. This movie really is a sight to behold from its pulsating man-versus-alien combat to some truly exhilarating set pieces. I was also caught off guard by its sprawling epic scale. McKay, cinematographer Larry Fong, and the busy digital effects team put together one visually impressive scene after another and you can see the bulk of the film’s hefty budget on the screen.

The story has its moments too in large part thanks to the performances. Pratt is just naturally down-to-earth and amusing which is very much his character here. He also has some good and crafty chemistry with both Armstrong and Strahovski. We even get the always welcomed J.K. Simmons playing Dan’s father, an off-the-radar Vietnam vet with a intense distrust of the federal government. There are some pretty deep daddy issues there that don’t get the full attention they deserve, but Simmons is terrific as always.

Still the storytelling isn’t without flaws. There are some cool revelations in the final act, but the entire setup to it is just too far-fetched even for a movie about humans traveling to the future to fight a war with aliens. And while fun, the movie is unquestionably familiar, especially in its ultimate execution. You can guess how things are going to turn out almost to the detail. But put those knocks aside. I had a blast with “The Tomorrow War” and it was just the kind of movie I needed right now. And in a tender way it has a moving message for us fathers – spend your time on what’s most important. Because your greatest purpose in life may be those sweet little eyes adoringly looking up at their daddy. “The Tomorrow War” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Till Death” (2021)

After being thrust into the public eye in 2007 with Michael Bay’s “Transformers”, Megan Fox quickly found herself known more for her sudden sex-symbol status than the movies she was making. After two abysmal “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” films, the Tennessee-born actress took a few years off, doing a little television but nothing on the big screen. She returned in 2019 and has since appeared in a wild variety of mostly straight-to-VOD movies. She also has several interesting projects on the way.

Fox’s latest “Till Death” is a genre mashup that can best be described as a psychological action survival horror thriller. It’s directed by S.K. Dale from a script penned by Jamie Cairney. They hand Fox a character who requires a two-sided performance, one that’s full of quiet brittle emotion and the other which is much grittier and physically demanding. The movie starts as an ugly marriage drama but ends in a far more violent and blood-splattered place.

Image Courtesy of Screen Media Films

Fox plays Emma, the wife of prominent New York City attorney Mark Webster (Eoin Macken). We first meet her as she’s ending an extramarital affair with one of her husband’s colleagues. We learn that her relationship with Mark has soured in large part due to his controlling and emotionally abusive behavior. There isn’t much nuance to Mark. He’s a slug from the start, frequently pointing out how she doesn’t meet his expectations and constantly reminding her of how she “used to be”. When she shows up at his office in a black dress rather than his favorite red one, he takes her back home to change before going out to dinner.

After a rather uncomfortable meal, Mark surprises Emma with a getaway to a remote lake house to celebrate their 11-year anniversary. He goes all out – candles, rose petals, and a pledge to be a better husband. Following an evening of champagne and romance, Emma wakes up to an alarming discovery. She finds herself in bed handcuffed to Mark’s blood-soaked corpse. I won’t go into the how and why, but from there a good chunk of the movie is Emma dragging her dead husband‘s body around the house trying to break free from him (the metaphor is pretty obvious). This whole part is a little grisly, at times unexpectedly clever, even darkly funny on occasion.

Image Courtesy of Screen Media Films

But then we get another twist when two brothers, one violently linked to Emma’s past, show up at the lake house anxious to get their hands on a bag of diamonds stashed inside. Up to this point the movie had been on shaky yet entertaining ground. But here is where it falls apart, not in an unbearably bad way. But any hint of plausibility pretty much vanishes as the violent grudge-bearing Bobby Ray (Callen Mulvey) and his timid younger brother (Jack Roth) search for Emma in and around the snowy property. It plays out as a series of near-miss encounters, some just too silly and convenient to buy.

It all leads to a predictable action showdown that’s no more easier to believe. Through it all Fox’s performance rarely gets above room temperature. It’s not that she’s bad. In fact the grit she brings to certain scenes is what makes them work. But there are scenes where her character needs more than the small range of emotion she brings. It all equals a flawed movie that still manages to be well-paced, digestible, hit-and-run entertainment. But you can also see hints of a better thriller that we unfortunately didn’t get. “Till Death” opens July 2nd.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Tina” (2021)

TINAposterr

Younger generations may not realize how big Tina Turner really was. Not just in her early days in the 1960’s as the lead singer of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue. But also during her massive comeback years later culminating with her 1984 multi-platinum solo album “Private Dancer”. That record would go on to sell 20 million copies and launch a global tour featuring 230 shows in 18 months including a concert in Rio in front of 186,000 fans. The next year she was starring in a “Mad Max” movie and authoring a New York Times best selling autobiography.

Now 81 years-old, Turner has mostly stepped away from the limelight yet people are still fascinated with her life’s journey – one full of amazing triumphs and devastating hardships. In HBO Max’s new documentary “Tina” from directors Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin, Turner tells her heartbreaking yet inspirational story for what she hopes is the last time while also paying her final farewell to a fan base that spans the entire globe.

TINA1

Image Courtesy of HBO Max

One of the documentary’s biggest strengths is that so much of what we see is in Turner’s own words. Lindsay and Martin pull large chunks from a 2019 interview with Turner from her home in Zurich, Switzerland and from her much publicized 1981 interview with People Magazine which marked the first time she spoke publicly about the abusive relationship and bitter breakup with Ike Turner, her husband and long-time music collaborator. Tina and Ike had been together for sixteen years, and though divorced from him, prying interviews made certain Tina could never fully escape his shadow.

Tina Turner was a natural performer full of energy, arms and legs flailing wildly, hair thrashing to the rhythms, and full-bodied notes pouring out of her soul. Yet we learn it was never her dream to become a superstar. Instead it was a fateful evening in 1957 when Tina went to hear Ike and his band play at a St. Louis nightclub. She was wow’d by Ike’s talent and asked if she could join him on stage. He didn’t buy that she could sing and turned her down. But she kept going back night after night until Ike gave in. Her voice blew him away and soon the 17-year-old Turner was playing weekend gigs which began her rocky road to stardom.

Lindsay and Martin ease us through Tina’s years with Ike using her voice, a wealth of great archival footage, and some revealing interviews with friends and former bandmates. The film takes a very candid yet compassionate look at the duo’s creative highs and their marital lows which were mostly a byproduct of Ike’s mental and physical abuse. It paints a vivid portrait of their 16 years together including one of the film’s most sobering moments as Turner gives her account of the evening of July 3rd, 1976 in Dallas, Texas – the night she determined enough was enough.

TINA2

Image Courtesy of HBO Max

In many ways “Tina” is also a movie about overcoming, reclaiming your life, and making your name your own. We see it as Turner, essentially cast aside by the industry, sets out to reinvent herself. She started by doing Las Vegas cabaret gigs, TV specials, and game show appearances just to get by. But soon she not only hits it big but becomes a global mega-star, selling out massive arenas and doing it all on her terms.

“Tina” is in many ways a fairly traditional music documentary which is just fine when you have a fascinating subject and you tell the story with clarity and honesty. That’s what we get here in large part because Lindsay and Martin let Turner do a lot of the talking. And while we get a clear picture of the savage effects of domestic abuse, we also see one of the first women to stand up to her abuser publicly which would inspire others to do the same. At the same time she was never able to get away from the very abuse that caused her so much pain. Even after becoming the biggest female pop star in the world the media and the public made sure Ike Turner’s influence was always present. With this documentary maybe she can finally put that painful part to rest. “Tina” is now streaming on HBO Max.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Those Who Wish Me Dead” (2021)

Taylor Sheridan makes movies I enjoy and it piques my interest whenever his name is attached to a project. Since first stepping behind the camera in 2011, Sheridan has been involved in several features that have been right up my alley. He penned both of the “Sicario” movies. He wrote and received an Oscar nomination for 2016’s “Hell or High Water”. He wrote and directed 2017’s underseen “Wind River”. And it’s worth mentioning that he was co-creator of Paramount’s hit show “Yellowstone”.

His latest film “Those Who Wish Me Dead” features many of Sheridan’s trademarks: the neo-western vibe, a distinct regional (often rural) flavor, and a crime element that plays a critical part in the story. Here he co-writes and directs a loose adaptation of a Michael Koryta novel of the same name (Koryta and Charles Leavitt also worked on the screenplay). Angelina Jolie provides the star power playing a tortured forest service firefighter who finds her shot at personal redemption when she crosses paths with a young boy being chased by two assassins.

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Jolie plays Hannah, a veteran smokejumper who’s still haunted by a terrible incident one year earlier. While fighting a raging forest fire, Hannah misread the wind leading to the deaths of three young boys. Now her PTSD combined with overwhelming guilt has driven her to leave her hotshots team and spend the summer alone manning an isolated 20×20 fire tower deep in the Montana forest. A ruggedly charming Jon Bernthal plays Ethan, a sheriff’s deputy and Hannah’s ex-boyfriend who’s worried about her self-destructive mindset. Both he and his pregnant wife Allison (Medina Senghore) see through her vain attempts at hiding her despair.

And that’s one leg of the story. The other involves Ethan’s brother Owen (Jake Weber), a forensic accountant living in Florida who stumbled upon some damning information that has some really powerful people wanting him dead. After hearing that the district attorney he was working with had been killed, Owen takes his 12-year-old son Connor (a very good Finn Little) and heads cross-country seeking the help of his brother. Little does he know, two efficient hired killers (Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult) are already on his trail and with limitless resources at their disposal.

These combustible elements inevitably collide deep in the mountain wilds of Montana. A brutal ambush leaves Owen dead and young Connor scampering through the woods where he eventually runs into Hannah. As she tries to earn the frightened boy’s trust, the two killers are hot on his trail determined to tie up their final loose end. And if that wasn’t enough, Sheridan ratchets the tension even tighter by throwing in a furious forest fire that’s bearing down on Hannah and Connor, cutting them off from the nearest help.

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Jolie is no stranger to playing broken characters so it’s no surprise that she’s a nice fit here. Once she gets past the hammy overly macho early scenes, she gives us a good taste of why she was cast. The problem is with so many moving parts and story angles to cover, the movie doesn’t give her the time needed to dig into Hannah’s emotional turmoil. It’s a key part of her character that’s ends up alluded to more that explored. Still, Jolie does what she can, showing stoicism, physicality, and a mother bear ferocity later on. The sturdy Bernthal is as reliable as ever and Senghore has some great moments. But it’s Gillen and Hoult who intrigued me most – cold, calculated and businesslike, with the same destructive savagery as the fire burning through the Montana forest.

“Those Who Wish Me Dead” is an imperfect yet entertaining crime thriller that settles for a straightforward throwback vibe rather than the deeper character focus it could have had. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. As you would expect from a Sheridan movie, it invests a lot into its location with DP Ben Richardson shooting the natural setting with both awe and reverence. And with an alluring cast and a surprising amount of grit, there’s enough here to keep you immersed and engaged. “Those Who Wish Me Dead” is now showing in theaters and on HBO Max.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Things Heard & Seen” (2021)

THINGSposter0

Fresh off her recent Academy Award nomination for “Mank”, Amanda Seyfried and Netflix team up once again in “Things Heard & Seen”. This slow-burning supernatural thriller comes from the writing, directing, and producing duo of Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman. Based on Elizabeth Brundage’s 2016 best-selling novel “All Things Cease to Appear”, the movie advertised itself as an old-fashioned haunted house tale (check out the trailer to see what I mean). In reality it’s a fraught marriage story full of dark secrets and ugly revelations.

Set in the early 1980s, Seyfried plays Catherine Clare, an art restorer who has a happy life in Manhattan. She reluctantly agrees to leave it all behind after her husband George (James Norton) gets a teaching job at a small college in upstate New York. The couple and their 4-year-old daughter Franny (Ana Sophia Heger) move into an old farmhouse nestled in the rural Hudson Valley near the small town of Chosen. George begins his tenure as an art history professor, quickly climbing up the social ranks with his students and the faculty. Meanwhile Catherine is left at home, isolated but perhaps not as alone as she thinks.

THINGS1

Image Courtesy of Netflix

The metaphor-heavy story starts taking shape once Catherine begins finding old items around the house that belonged to the previous owners – some yellowed sheet music, a tattered old book, a mysterious ring. She also begins noticing weird occurrences, mostly at night – flickering lights, a strange smell, eerie shimmers of light. It all compels her to dig into the history of the home which turns out to have an ugly and violent past. Other people in the area seem to know what went down there including two local brothers (Alex Neustaedter and Jack Gore) who the Clare’s hire to work around the place. Even George seems to know more than he’s letting on.

And much like the house, George begins showing signs that he too has some secrets of his own. The facade of a loving and tender family man from the early scenes crumbles and is replaced by a smug and egocentric narcissist who’s more interested in his notoriety at the college and a particular young stable worker named Willis (Natalia Dyer). As Catherine and George inevitably grow further apart, simmering old tensions that they’ve been able to navigate in the past now resurface to add more strain on the relationship. For example, Catherine is a devout Catholic while George is a condescending atheist. He wants to medicate their daughter because of her nightmares, while she thinks Franny is too young.

Rhea Seehorn (“Better Call Saul”), F. Murray Abraham, and Karen Allen help fill in pieces of the story. Seehorn plays a colleague from the University who befriends Catherine but doesn’t quite trust George. “I get suspicious when students worship their professors.” Abraham plays the head of George’s department and a firm believer in spirits (and not the drinking kind). And the underused but much welcomed Allen plays a real estate broker with some key insight into the mysteries of the Clare’s house.

THINGS2

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Sadly, the film’s nicest surprise leads to one of its biggest problems. At its core this is very much a stinging relationship drama centered around a souring marriage. While not all of Catherine and George’s choices makes sense (a couple are downright baffling), Pulcini and Berman chronicle the slow collapse of their once happy union with a shrewd and meticulous hand. But by making that the chief focus, the movie ends up shortchanging the supernatural element. The story hints at things like good spirits, malevolent spirits, curses, etc., but they’re never explored in a meaningful way and in many ways feel disconnected from the story.

Everything in the natural world has a counterpart in the spiritual realm.” It’s a line from Abraham’s character that teases the supernatural angle the movie is apparently going for. Unfortunately this side of the story feels stitched in and finding meaning in it proves to be a chore. So we’re left wondering and digging for metaphors. Fortunately the relationship drama/thriller stuff plays well and is driven by a committed Amanda Seyfried along with a fun supporting cast. It doesn’t all make sense, but it has a rather nasty edge to it that keeps you locked in. It makes the film entertaining enough and as engaging as it is flawed. “Things Heard & Seen” premieres today (April 29th) on Netflix.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “The Tunnel” (2021)

TUNNELposter

The new (at least in the States) Norwegian disaster movie “The Tunnel” opens by dropping a few interesting facts that adds some perspective to what we are about to see. We learn that there are 1100 tunnels throughout Norway, most without emergency exits or safety rooms. The title cards go on to say that since 2011 there have been eight major tunnel fires and it was the heroic acts of survivors and first responders that ultimately saved countless lives. Those events and those acts are the inspiration for director Pål Øie’s film.

I call the film “new”, but it actually opened in Norway back in 2019. Now it has made its way further west and American audiences can take in a movie that has many of the usual disaster movie ingredients. We get the large cast full of characters with different roles to play. Some are victims fighting to survive; others are rescue workers trying to save them. You get the devastating event, the dramatic close calls, children in peril, a heroic sacrifice, etc. You get the one jerk everyone wants to punch in the mouth, the troubled family that needs a good disaster to bring them back together, and even the ominous tried-and-true warning “There’s a storm coming.”

TUNNEL1

Image Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

Yet “The Tunnel” still works in large part because of its tight focus and kinetic pacing. It also helps to have solid performances from a cast who never overplays it (with one small exception). First time feature screenwriter Kjersti Helen Rasmussen doesn’t fully avoid the genre trappings which leads to a predictability the movie never can quite shake. But she does infuse her story with humanity (which should be at the core of every film like this) while also delivering enough thrills to keep things exciting.

It’s the Christmas season and Elise (Ylva Fuglerud) is having a rough time. It has been three years since her mother died, and as anyone who has lost someone close will tell you, the holidays are tough when you’re still mourning. Elise’s father Stein (a stoic Thorbjørn Harr) plows icy roads and leads convoys for Emergency Services. He also has a new girlfriend Ingrid (Lisa Carlehed) and he would like her to spend Christmas with them. As you might expect, this goes over like a lead balloon. Elise storms off and in a moment of frustration hops on a bus bound for Oslo.

TUNNEL2

Image Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

Further up in the snow-covered mountains (some 3117 feet above sea level), as travelers hurry home for the holidays, a tanker truck crashes deep within the 5.6 mile-long Storfjell tunnel. At first it looks to be nothing more than an annoying and inconvenient traffic jam, but we know better. A fuel leak and a spark from an electrical box causes a fiery explosion which fills the tunnel with blinding black smoke and toxic fumes. As those trapped struggle amid the chaos, emergency teams mobilize outside including Stein who is called in to help coordinate the rescue effort. But little does he know the bus carrying his daughter is among the many vehicles packed inside. Didn’t see that coming, did you?

A few other pieces are placed on the board including a family of four returning from a Christmas party, a hot-headed young fireman named Ivar (Mikkel Bratt Silset), and the best – a Road Traffic Control operator named Andrea (Ingvild Holthe Bygdnes). All have parts to play as Øie deftly maneuvers around an assortment of clichés and easy-to-read outcomes. But by highlighting the heroism and keeping things focused on the people rather than the spectacle, “The Tunnel” gives its audience something authentic to latch onto and root for. “The Tunnel” is now streaming on VOD.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars