Dunkirk Movie Review

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk has moments and plenty of them which are simply breathtaking. We expect the director of The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, and Interstellar to serve up a visual treat as he enters the war genre and he does. Yet I didn’t quite anticipate occasional moments of emotional resonance and the tight running time that keeps it moving at a brisk pace. This is an often epic experience in a truncated frame. That decision by the director and his editors allow Dunkirk to capture the fierce urgency of warfare told from three perspectives.

The film recounts the Battle of Dunkirk in Northern France in 1940. The British and their French allies are on the losing side of this particular conflict with the Nazis and evacuation plans are underway. Nolan chooses not to tell the events in a traditional or linear manner. Three stories are highlighted – by land, sea, and air. I list them in that manner because the land piece develops over a week’s time. Our action on the water happens in a day. The air portion is a matter of just an hour.

On land, we meet a number of soldiers desperately searching for escape while trying to help their wounded fellow countrymen. We also listen in on the strategies of the military higher-ups, led by Kenneth Branagh’s sturdy commander.

On the water, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) answers the call to take his own boat to help pick up soldiers from the extraction area. He brings his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and friend (Barry Keoghan) along with him. On their way to their destination, they come upon a lone soldier (Cillian Murphy) who is experiencing shock from a U-boat attack.

In the air, Tom Hardy’s Air Force pilot and two fellow fighters must furiously try to down Nazi planes bombing those waiting in the evacuation region, while keeping an eye on their own fuel.

All of this activity unfolds in just over 100 minutes in a picture you’d expect to run closer to three hours. Character development is at a minimum but that’s not a demerit. Dunkirk captures the hectic nature, uncertainty, and chaos of war. With Nolan at the helm and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema behind the lense, it’s also filled with beautiful imagery on a beach filled with soldiers, on the expansive ocean, and in the clouds. The screenplay gives us just enough focus on its characters to make certain situations emotionally resonant. This especially holds true with the sea portion and Rylance’s determined skipper and Murphy’s battle weary soldier.

The time jumping element is one that would make Tarantino proud. That aspect adds an often fresh perspective to the well-worn WWII genre and its glorious and inglorious tales. By its conclusion, we marvel at personal acts by humans caught up in impossible situations in the fog of battle. In a week, a day, and an hour, Dunkirk expertly shows it.

***1/2 (out of four)

The Fate of the Furious Movie Review

The Fate of the Furious is our eighth – yes, eighth – installment of a franchise that it would have been ridiculous to imagine there being that many entries. We’re a long way from the original 16 years ago that was sort of a drag racing rip-off of Point Break, or Point Brake as I deemed it in my review. That said, a common thread among the series is its willingness to be knowingly ridiculous while weaving in endless monologues about the importance of family.

The formula took on a different tone in predecessor Furious 7, which admirably managed to deal with the death of franchise stalwart Paul Walker in its conclusion. In that sense, Fate ushers in a new chapter. New characters are introduced, old ones are rehashed, and the level of silliness is brought to a level not quite seen before. Yes, cars go fast here. However, part 8 owes more to James Bond flicks when they were less grim (think Roger Moore era with a quarter billion dollar budget).

As I’ve written in previous Furious critiques, plot is secondary but here’s what you need to know: Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) has turned on his team. Sort of. He’s being forced to team up with criminal mastermind Cipher (Charlize Theron), who evades authorities in the air on an invisible plane. See what I mean? Isn’t that the kind of villain 007 might battle in the late seventies? Now on the wrong side of justice, Dominic and Cipher must go against Dom’s “family”, including wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and the familiar players played by Dwayne Johnson (whose goofy character is still good for some funny and bizarre moments), Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Kurt Russell, and more. Part 7’s main villain Jason Statham is more of a team player this time around and even Oscar winner Helen Mirren turns up as his mum. Statham is granted a fight scene towards the end where he has to be delicate with some cargo he’s carrying (you’ll see what I mean). The scene is genuinely humorous and quite well choreographed.

The plot is all an excuse for the massive action spectacles and globe trotting we’ve become accustomed to and we have it here in Cuba, New York City, and Russia. The climactic sequence set on Russian frozen tundra employs the usual expensive vehicles, but we also are treated to tanks and submarines. Remember the ice action in Pierce Brosnan’s Bond flick Die Another Day? Think that, but it’s not embarrassingly awful.

Our Furious sagas rise and fall on the ability for us to check our brains at the Universal logo. By the third act, I’d succumbed once again to its cheesy charms. Maybe one day this series will truly stall like it briefly did in 2006’s Tokyo Drift. Not yet though and that’s some kind of testament to its durability.

*** (out of four)

Spider-Man: Homecoming Movie Review

Spider-Man: Homecoming is the third reiteration of the web slinger franchise that began a decade and a half ago. It arrives three years after the first reboot with Andrew Garfield sputtered in its second entry. That franchise faded away being plagued by the same issues that Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire’s trilogy suffered at its end – too many villains and generally trying to cram too much superfluous material. It’s a pleasure to report that Homecoming doesn’t suffer the same problems.

In fact, our third Spidey helping soars the most when Peter Parker stays grounded. Tom Holland is the title character, getting his stand-alone pic after a brief appearance in last summer’s Captain America: Civil War. Yes, Spidey/Peter is now part of the vast Marvel Cinematic Universe and he’s a pupil of none other than Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). Well, sort of. After assisting in one epic battle in Civil War, Peter wrongly assumes he’s part of The Avengers. Yet Stark isn’t exactly quick to enlist him, tasking his trusty bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) to keep tabs on him but not involve him in their day-to-day world saving activities.

That leaves Peter doing his Spidey thing on a much smaller scale, busting carjackers and ATM thieves in New York City while hiding his identity from Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and his high school buddies. That consists mostly of just one classmate Ned (Jacob Batalon), a fellow nerd. Peter also has a serious crush on Liz (Laura Harrier), the lovely captain of the academic decathlon team. There’s another female student, played by Zendaya, that you suspect will become more important as the franchise continues. Homecoming does something that other Spidey flicks never really bothered to do. It makes Peter Parker a credible high school student. Part of the problem in the first two series was that you never bought Maguire or Garfield as underclassmen. With Holland, his youthful exuberance and awkwardness sell it. Of the trio we’ve seen thus far, he is probably the best Spider-Man. He’s definitely the best Peter Parker.

One of Spidey’s busts while waiting for Tony Stark to call with bigger projects leads him to Toomes (Michael Keaton), whose backstory is explained in the opening sequence. He’s a former small business owner gone disgruntled after more powerful interests (Mr. Stark and his empire) took his livelihood away. Toomes retaliates by using some stolen materials to develop weapons. Just as Peter is an everyday guy who becomes a superhero, Toomes is a once normal Joe who becomes a super villain. With Keaton playing him, it’s a pleasure to watch. One often deserved knock on the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that a solid villain is about as common as a Marvel Cinematic Unicorn. As with Loki, this offers an exception and Keaton is the reason why.

The scenes in the high school are handled with a often light, humorous and believable touch. Our grand action set pieces are expertly handled, but not much different than anything else we see multiple times a year (one at the Washington Monument is pretty nifty though). Homecoming does a commendable job at remembering that our hero is a neighborhood Spider-Man. Even though we know a much larger universe awaits him, it’s a treat to watch him working in relatively more grounded reality.

*** (out of four)

Life Movie Review

Calvin Coolidge was our 30th President of the United States and he isn’t talked about too often in the general grand scheme of Presidential history. There will probably never be a biopic about President Coolidge, but he does receive the honor of having an alien named after him in Daniel Espinosa’s Life. The term mild-mannered comes up frequently in relation to the President. His extra-terrestrial namesake is nothing of the kind.

Life takes place entirely on the International Space Station (ISS) where a six-member crew is returning from a Mars mission. They’ve made quite the discovery: Matt Damon and they’re bringing him home with his disco music! Actually it’s a soil sample that turns out to be the first evidence of life outside Earth. School children are given the ability to name this historic being and the lucky winners hail from Calvin Coolidge Elementary – hence Calvin.

Jake Gyllenhaal is Dr. Jordan, who’s been stationed the longest and seems to have a slight case of space institutionalization. Ryan Reynolds is engineer Rory, who keeps the Reynolds patented wisecracks to a minimum. Dr. Miranda (Rebecca Ferguson) is the chief quarantine officer. Biologist Hugh (Ariyon Barake) is tasked with bringing Calvin out of his dormant status to life.

That turns out to be a bad idea because Calvin has only survival instincts in mind. The organism shows a mean streak when he wakes up and Life becomes all about the passengers on board clinging to their own.

Audiences have been treated (or in some cases subject to) a host of outer space themed pictures in recent years, from Gravity to Interstellar to The Martian to Passengers to name a few. Some of those titles had a hopeful tone about what lies beyond our planet. Life? Not so much.

The production design and technical elements are top-notch and the acting is just fine, even though no one really has a character to work with. Espinosa’s exercise is mainly an excuse to pay both loving homage and rip-off Alien, the granddaddy of this genre. In that sense, it does provide some genuinely scary moments and plenty of others that are just familiar territory. Life is competent if not memorable, which is also what some historians say about President Coolidge. 

**1/2 (out of four)

Baby Driver Movie Review

In his filmography which includes Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Edgar Wright has shown a flair for infusing a vast music catalogue to mix with inventive action. It’s on display at the highest gear in Baby Driver. Only Quentin Tarantino rivals and probably tops this director at it. For the majority of its running time, Driver merrily coasts in its own reality (like Quentin’s projects do) and it’s often a thrill.

Despite sounding like a Dreamworks animated project where a precocious infant gets an Uber license, the title refers to Ansel Elgort’s name and profession. His job is to ferry bank robbers around and make grand escapes upon completion. This is done at the direction of criminal mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey, oozing sarcasm and smarminess as only he can do). Baby is rarely disconnected from his ear buds. A childhood tragedy that took the life of his musician mom has left him with tinnitus or a “hum in the drum” as Doc calls it. This means he is constantly blaring a seriously cool playlist that permeates the car chases that are his occupational hazard.

It turns out Baby is not involved in his line of work on a voluntary basis. He’s ready to move on, especially after meeting lovely waitress Debora (Lily James) who’s ready to ride off into the sunset with him. Yet there’s always that last job and it involves working with thieves Bats (Jamie Foxx, who’s having a grand time) and hot and heavy and psychotic couple Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez). Baby has a moral compass when it comes to his work. His coworkers don’t always share that view.

Baby Driver takes little time getting the audience accustomed to its style. Between the chases (of which are expertly handled), we get plenty of tuneful fun. Some of the tracks are meant to get Baby motivated to do his assignments. Others are meant to further the courtship of him and Debora. Elgort and James have a winning chemistry here. You want them to hit that open road into happily ever after.

Only in the last few minutes does Driver somewhat stall when it becomes less enamored with its own hyper universe and becomes a more traditional action thriller. Thankfully there’s plenty of joyful noise that precedes it.

***1/2 (out of four)

John Wick: Chapter 2 Movie Review

Unlike its surprise hit predecessor, no animals are harmed in the duration of John Wick: Chapter 2. However, dozens and dozens of other miscellaneous henchmen are. Especially their heads, which is a specialty of our title character to turn them into squib fodder.

2014’s John Wick gave our retired assassin (Keanu Reeves) a decent reason to use his killing skills. His dying wife gave him a dog as a gift and bad guys disposed of it (they also stole his sweet ride). This led to a shoot-em-up extravaganza that served as a comeback role for Reeves and one of the more distinctive action titles in a while. Directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch fashioned an ultra stylish, ultra violent, and occasionally ultra inventive experience. The first Wick burned with an intense, brooding and often humorous showcase for its star. Yet it also began building a world gleefully not grounded anywhere in reality that let the creative juices of screenwriter Derek Kolstad run free. This was especially evident in scenes at The Continental Hotel in New York City, a fancy establishment reserved for nefarious types who make their living from offing others.

It was time spent at that hotel that gave John Wick an air of something new and creative and it turns out there’s a Continental in Rome as well. That’s where the majority of the carnage here takes place. The sequel picks up right after the events of the original as Wick wraps up his business from the previous outing. He’s ready to go back to retirement with his new unnamed canine companion when an Italian baddie (Riccardo Scamarcio) visits his home. It turns out Wick made a deal with him some time ago to accept any job with no questions asked. Our villain’s task is to kill his sister so he can elevate his crime boss status and that brings Wick to Rome with an arsenal.

What follows is a lot of what we saw in the original – grandly choreographed sequences in which Wick uses his talents. This could run the risk of becoming redundant. There’s only so many ways of killing villains, but I’ll be damned if Wick doesn’t find some fascinating ways to do it. Still, it’s the little touches that make chapters 1 and 2 special from time to time.

For instance, I love the idea of an old school telephone company setting where the women working in the office look like goth versions of tellers from the 1950s. Their job is to pass along information when a hit is ordered (of which John is certainly subject to). I found myself interested in all the rules that the film’s enormous supply of assassins must abide by and the hints of larger syndicates. Some of those new professionals include Common (whose fights scenes with Wick are a highlight) and Ruby Rose as a mute vixen who hurls insults through sign language. Laurence Fishburne pops up as an underground (literally) crime leader whose group will probably play a larger role in the inevitable sequel.

While Wick’s motivations in this chapter aren’t quite as rage inducing as his departed pup, Chapter 2 recognizes the unique qualities that put chapter 1 above your typical genre material. Thankfully it keeps it at a level where I’m curious what the next chapter brings beyond the limitless supply of mercenaries whose cranial areas will be irreparably harmed.

*** (out of four)

Fist Fight Movie Review

Fist Fight is not worth it. It’s not worth the involvement of a decent cast that’s provided laughs in other projects. It’s not even worthy of that bloopers reel that you just know is coming once its 91 minutes thankfully concludes. Even they’re not very funny.

This is a loose remake of 1987 cult comedy Three O’Clock High, a fun little exercise that’s earned its status as an under appreciated flick. The common thread is the long buildup to an eventual brawl in a high school. However, this time it’s the teachers and not the students. In one corner, we have wimpy English teacher Mr. Campbell (Charlie Day). In the other, we have intimidating history instructor Mr. Strickland (Ice Cube).

These two educators are in the last day of school when a dispute leads Cube to challenge Day to its title at 3pm once the bell rings. The circumstances leading to it are not particularly relevant, though they certainly call into question why Cube’s character should be anywhere near a classroom. That’s common here. Most of the characters from faculty to the kids are dumb and constantly doing dumb things. Jillian Bell, who stole scenes in 22 Jump Street, is that teacher we’ve all had who does meth and wants to hook up with the seniors. This is one example of several where the script goes for extreme vulgarity and non-PC humor. Nothing wrong with that, but it rarely lands with its crass chuckles attempts.

Cube scowls his way through. Day plays up the always nerve-wracked weakling. Somewhere in here is an attempted message about bravery and not backing down to powers that be. If only some of the talent here could have been brave enough to punch up this lackadaisical screenplay.

*1/2 (out of four)

The Mummy Movie Review

The Mummy is many things to Universal Pictures and it has many conflicting tones to go along with it. The film shares the name of franchise of the Brendan Fraser flicks started in 1999 and little else. Most importantly, it’s the premiere title of the studio’s planned Dark Universe series which will bring back invisible and wolf men and Frankensteins and their brides.

Perhaps that’s why The Mummy can often seem like a preview of what’s to come. Based on this initial offering, the Dark Universe and its grand designs to bring back the classic monsters of Universal’s past is iffy but not without some occasional charms.

A prologue tells the tale of Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), Egyptian royalty primed to rule her land. Family complications alter that course so she goes on a murderous rampage which results in her mummification. Her story is buried for centuries until present day.

That’s when Nick Morton, a former soldier still in Iraq to pillage treasure with his comedic sidekick (Jake Johnson) inadvertently unearth the Princess’s tomb. Our title character has serious cursing skills and uses them on Nick and others. Thus begins an attempt to destroy her and get Mr. Cruise back to his normal self.

The screenplay makes the decision to make Nick a bit of an anti hero. He’s a slight jerk who’s in it for himself for a good portion of the running time. There are shades of Cruise’s character in Edge of Tomorrow, a better film to be sure. It allows this movie star a chance to be funny at times, a little cowardly, and it’s kind of fun to watch Cruise play it.

What the script doesn’t do is provide any development to his archeologist love interest and investigative partner Jennifer (Annabelle Wallis). We’re told the two shacked up a couple of nights before we meet them, but their connection is pretty much non existent. As mentioned, it’s sometimes a hoot to see Nick as a louse. When the screenplay tries to get us to care about his feelings for Jennifer, it falls flat.

For that matter, the lovely Boutella isn’t much of a scary villain. Sidekick Johnson has a few humorous bits, but gets lost in the shuffle mostly. There’s not much time for character development sans Cruise’s take on his part. Russell Crowe is here as Dr. Jekyll so we know he gets to have some duality in his role. His performance is just fine, though one suspects his real opportunities will come later in this universe.

This Mummy works best when it goes campy – something I wouldn’t have guessed. A number of moments going for intentional chuckles work. However, the studio has much to set up and allowing director Alex Kurtzman and his slew of writers go full out camp doesn’t happen. This creates an uncomfortable mix of horror, adventure, and the aforementioned and often successful self parody. Much of The Mummy is filled with action sequences that are indistinguishable from other summer blockbusters (though a zero gravity plane crash is nifty). We don’t really care about what’s happening because Universal seems in a hurry to get to the next monster mash. Yet I’ll be figuratively damned if I didn’t enjoy some of it.

**1/2 (out of four)

A Cure for Wellness Movie Review

Gore Verbinski’s A Cure for Wellness is a visually sumptuous experience that deserves a fascinating plot to go with the scenery. It’s not really there, however, so we’re left with an eye popping failure that goes on far too long. Spending two and a half hours in the Swiss Alps isn’t so bad at times, but I wish the screenwriter had realized the story is essentially nothing new. There’s shades of Shutter Island (not just because its lead resembles a younger Leo DiCaprio), plenty of Gothic horror entries, and even a Marathon Man school of dentistry moment. Does it add up to a satisfying whole? Not so much.

Dane DeHaan stars as Lockhart, a workaholic at an NYC financial firm who is tasked with traveling across the ocean to retrieve a coworker. That individual is Pembroke (Harry Groener), the company’s CEO who has gone MIA and is holed up at a mysterious “wellness center” in the mountains of Switzerland. The firm needs him back as they are mired in a trading scandal and forthcoming merger. Lockhart, with his unbridled ambition, is eager to do it.

Once there, he discovers a place filled with some of the world’s 1% trying to improve their lives. It’s run by the mysterious Dr. Heinrich Volmer (Jason Isaacs), who encourages Lockhart and his clientele to be drinking the water fed to them continuously. We suspect it’s not just to keep hydrated due to the altitude.

Lockhart is also told that once you’re at the lush spa, you don’t leave and he discovers this the hard way. His seemingly interminable stay (it sometimes feels that way for us too) acquaints him with Hannah (Mia Goth), a mysterious young girl who still acts far younger than she should. It is this duo that tries to discover the truth behind their surroundings.

A Cure for Wellness is a triumph of production design and other technical aspects. Verbinski, the director of Mousehunt and the American version of The Ring and first three Pirates of the Caribbean pics, has shown these abilities before. If only that pesky story were more original. If only the characters inhabiting this peculiar land were more developed. For instance, Dehaan’s lead character is saddled with a familiar backstory of Daddy issues. Two and a half hours is too much time to be spent here no matter how gorgeous it looks.

** (out of four)

 

Wonder Woman Movie Review

The small sub genre of female driven superhero movies has unfortunately been a bit of a cinematic litter box with forgettable fare like Supergirl, Catwoman, and Elektra. That changes with Wonder Woman from director Patty Jenkins. It is not only by far the most satisfying comic book adaptation headlined by a woman, it’s the most entertaining DC pic since Christopher Nolan was handling the Batman franchise.

We first saw Gal Gadot’s title character in last year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice as a sidekick to those two iconic titans. While it deservedly earned its reputation as a mess, it was also a mess worth watching and Wonder Woman was a bright spot in it. Now we get her origin story. We begin in present day with Diana Prince collaborating with Bruce Wayne. The Caped Crusader’s research has uncovered a photograph of the ageless Wonder from the World War I era (which we first saw in BvS). This causes Diana’s memory to travel way, way back.

Before the events chronicled in that picture come into play, we get Diana as a young girl on the lush and secluded island of Themyscira. It is a land of only women, including her Amazon queen mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and her warrior aunt Antiope (Robin Wright). As a child, she’s told grand stories of the Gods and how Ares the god of war killed Zeus and it all led to this private island paradise. Mother mostly wants this quality of life preserved while Auntie Antiope insists on training Diana into a warrior princess. And it seems even pre teen Diana has a knack for kicking butt.

The dynamic of life on Themyscira is altered when hunky WWI spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and his plane crash lands there. Diana rescues him and get her first exposure to the male species. She’s also exposed to the news that a massive war is taking place outside her small world and she feels it’s her duty to help. So off she goes with Captain Trevor with the idea that she’ll rid the Earth of Ares, whom she believes is the real culprit behind all the chaos.

Our scenery changes from the bright and shimmering island to gray and drab London where Diana is a major fish out of water. There are scenes of her adjusting to her new surroundings (including having to try on the restrictive clothing of the era) that are quite humorous. The duo soon assemble a rag tag team with tacit approval from a commander played by David Thewlis. Their mission is to stop a German general (Danny Huston) and a deformed scientist (Elena Anaya, who is memorable here) who’s developed a dastardly gas concoction.

While all this intrigue is occurring, Diana and Steve are becoming closer and Gadot and Pine have a romantic and often funny chemistry. Their interactions lead to some charming moments, but also ones that lead to dramatic heft later. Unlike recent DC titles like BvS and Man of Steel, Wonder Woman isn’t afraid to have a degree of silliness that is welcome. After all, our heroine’s “lasso of truth” is present here and it’s difficult to take it very seriously. What’s easy to admire is Gadot’s work in selling her character’s reaction to her new reality off the island. Wonder Woman believes that simply stopping the God she’s heard about for all her life will make everything right. It’s fascinating to watch her realization that the world is a bit more complicated.

The grand action sequences here aren’t much different in style or quality than what we’ve witnessed before in countless other superhero tales. Wonder Woman doesn’t break the mold from the many origin stories that come from comic book pages. Some of the plot points are familiar – we know there will be an additional villain reveal in the third act and there is.

However, Wonder Woman succeeds because it takes time to develop her story. It gives her a partner and romantic interest that we like and care about. The screenplay isn’t solely consumed with loud and fiery battle set pieces. The writers remember that character exploration and humor are assets as well. And, yes, for the first time witness a superhero with “wo” added to the “man” that hits the mark.

*** (out of four)