BULLET TRAIN (2022) – Stylized Action Sequences and Silly Banter the New Norm in Hollywood

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Stylized action and banter.

That’s the new normal in Hollywood action movies these days. Sure, it worked for Marvel’s AVENGERS movies, and actually for most of their movies pre-AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019), but for that level of success you need both nifty writing and characters you care about, which is not as easy as it sounds.

BULLET TRAIN (2022), a new action/comedy/thriller— why not throw in musical while we’re at it? — directed by David Leitch, the man who directed FAST & FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS AND SHAW (2019) and DEADPOOL 2 (2018), and starring Brad Pitt, is the high concept story of several assassins all on the same bullet train roaring through Japan, all interested in the same gray briefcase. Before I go any further, I have to give a shout out to Peter Bogdanovich’s classic comedy of yesteryear and one of my all-time favorites, WHAT’S UP DOC? (1972), one of the most underrated comedic films ever made, which featured Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal and used a similar plot point, but in that film, it was a bunch of cases that all looked the same. That was a funny movie. BULLET TRAIN has its moments, but it also has to split time between being a comedy and a thriller and an action movie. Maybe it should have just picked one and focused on that!

BULLET TRAIN reminded me a lot of a movie we just saw a couple weeks ago, THE GRAY MAN (2022) which starred Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans. Same formula, action and banter, similar results. BULLET TRAIN has a couple of things going for it which makes it preferable to THE GRAY MAN. One, its action scenes aren’t as ridiculously over the top (although some come close), and two, it has Brad Pitt, who creates a character in this movie who is more fleshed out and enjoyable than either character played by Gosling or Evans in THE GRAY MAN.

Pitt plays an assassin whose codename is Ladybug, and as the movie opens, he’s in Japan enjoying some rest and relaxation, working on getting his head and mood together, so when he agrees to return to action and take another job, he’s feeling rested and terrific, even if he feels he’s always plagued by bad luck, which is a running gag throughout the movie. The job he receives from his handler (voiced by Sandra Bullock) is described as very simple: just board a bullet train, locate a gray briefcase, and take it off the train.

But the job is anything but simple because there are a bunch of other assassins on board, and they also want the briefcase. And that’s the plot folks, as pretty much the entire 126-minute running time is spent with assassins vying for the same case on a speeding train. I half expected Bugs Bunny, the Road Runner, and Wile E Coyote and friends to show up.

As I said, BULLET TRAIN was directed by David Leitch, and it plays like any number of movies he’s made already, although it reminded me the most of his HOBBS AND SHAW vehicle, which was more silly than fun, and I felt similarly about BULLET TRAIN. Leitch also directed ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) which was not a comedy and featured some of the best action fight scenes in a movie in a long time, and so that’s probably my favorite Leitch film.

BULLET TRAIN looks great with its colorful cinematography, and you can’t go wrong with its polished stylish action sequences. You just aren’t going to believe many of them, because they come off as cartoonish. Pitt’s Ladybug is like Bugs Bunny. Bombs explode and he walks away without a scratch. Always.

Zak Olkewicz wrote the amiable screenplay based on the book by Kotaro Isaka, and it’s filled with nonstop banter, so if you like that sort of thing, you’ll have fun here. It works for me up to a point. It’s certainly better than the dialogue in another action/comedy hit (which I did not like at all) from earlier this year, UNCHARTED (2022), a ridiculous movie that featured Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg exchanging barbs while travelling the world in search of treasure. Audiences ate this one up, though. I found it dumb and redundant.

Here, Brad Pitt is very funny as Ladybug, the assassin who can’t stop thinking and philosophizing on life. His character and his performance are the best parts of the movie. His laid-back attitude is the perfect foil for the high-octane action sequences. From his genuine disappointment upon being attacked— you stabbed me? Really?— to one point where he’s speaking to a woman during a fight sequence and catches himself, saying I’m mansplaining.

Pitt is very good, and the script does its best job with his character, but it’s not enough. The biggest knock against BULLET TRAIN is I’m just getting tired of this kind of movie. After a while, the action and banter get boring. Even with a whole host of assassins on board.

The two best, besides Pitt, are Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), “twins” who work together but who share nothing in common other than the fact that they treat each other like brothers. Tangerine is a proper speaking Englishman, while Lemon bases his entire life on the Thomas the Tank Engine children’s stories. Their banter is also funny, but as is the case with Pitt, they are simply not enough to carry this movie.

This is probably the most fun role I’ve seen Aaron Taylor-Johnson play since way back when he was much younger playing the lead in KICK-ASS (2010), and the most satisfying role I’ve seen him play since SAVAGES (2012). Bryan Tyree Henry is equally as good, and it’s probably the best performance I’ve seen him give. Henry has also appeared in GODZILLA VS. KONG (2021), JOKER (2019) and HOTEL ARTEMIS (2018) to name just a few.

Joey King as Prince was probably my least favorite character in the movie. She’s a young woman pretending to be a victim when in reality she’s a major villain. In spite of the duality of the part, it’s pretty much a one-note character and performance on King’s part.

The Japanese characters pretty much play it straight. Andrew Koji as Kimura and Hiroyuki Sanada as The Elder are serious throughout, and as such, kinda seem out of place because the rest of the movie takes nothing seriously.

Michael Shannon shows up late in the game and briefly as The White Death, but it’s both way too late and too short for him to make much of an impact. And when we finally see Sandra Bullock, she looks like she’s either been heavily airbrushed to look younger or they used CGI on her. She just doesn’t look natural. For such a brief appearance, it was weird.

BULLET TRAIN doesn’t really know what kind of a movie it’s supposed to be, yet it feels comfortable in this role, because that’s kind of a new genre today. Make a movie that’s equal parts action, comedy, and thriller, with lots of good-natured banter, and the audience will go home happy. In other words, show lots of stylized violence and bloody deaths, but if the main characters remain cool and make jokes about it, and survive, it’s all okay.

Sort of.

At times, BULLET TRAIN with its R rating seemed to be aiming for a Quentin Tarantino vibe, but it’s vastly inferior to Tarantino’s work. First, Tarantino isn’t above showing the gruesome realities of violence. His characters are still funny and still banter, but his worlds are less cartoonish and safe. Also, the editing here, especially early on, seemed off. It took me a while to really settle in with BULLET TRAIN, as its jumping-around early scenes were more jarring than introductory.

BULLET TRAIN had a lot of moments that I liked, and it featured performances by Brad Pitt, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Brian Tyree Henry that I really enjoyed, but at the end of the day it simply wasn’t enough because it’s part of a new “genre” of films that likes to link action and comedy, and through amiable clever banter give the illusion that death and destruction is safe and harmless.

A la Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner. But they’re cartoons. And movies should be more than cartoons. I’m not arguing that you can’t make “safe” action comedies. You can.

But you can also make less safe action comedies that are even funnier and work better because the audience is on edge and feeling less safe.

BULLET TRAIN, in spite of its high body count, remains a safe passage for its audience for the entirety of its ride, even with its R rating.

Fans of nervous laughter might want to ride a different train.

—END—

THE HARDER THEY FALL (2021) – Stylish Western Reminiscent of Spaghetti Westerns of Yesteryear

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You can’t ask for a more stylish western than THE HARDER THEY FALL (2021), a new Netflix movie by writer/director/singer/songwriter Jeymes Samuel, but in spite of all the bells and whistles, its story is all rather ordinary, and as a result, this well-made actioner didn’t move me as much as I thought it would.

That’s not to say THE HARDER THEY FALL isn’t entertaining. It is. Director Jeymes Samuel holds nothing back here. His kinetic directorial style using everything from oversized captions to extreme close-ups, as well as colorful, brilliant cinematography, and hard, brutal and bloody violence, reminded me a lot of the classic Spaghetti Westerns of yesteryear, films directed by Sergio Leone and oftentimes starring Clint Eastwood. The only thing missing is a music score by Ennio Morricone.

Of course, THE HARDER THEY FALL has its own signature music score, by songwriter/director Jeymes Samuel, and like most of this movie, it works wonderfully. The only thing lacking in this movie is a compelling storyline, which is something it almost has, but just falls short.

THE HARDER THEY FALL is about two rival black gangs in the old west. Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) is an outlaw who robs other outlaws. He also spends his time hunting down the gang members who murdered his mother and father in front of him when he was only ten years old. The gang leader who gunned down his parents, Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) is in prison, but when his gang breaks him out of his confinement on a train, Love decides it’s time to take him down. And the two ruthless gangs head on a collision course to see who will ultimately survive.

As plots go, this one is okay. The problem is the film doesn’t do the best job of building suspense or excitement as Love closes in on Buck, and when they finally do meet, it’s somewhat of a disappointment. The film’s ultimate conclusion includes a telling reveal, which is one of the best parts of this otherwise ordinary story, but after a slew of violent scenes and fights, the ending just doesn’t generate the nail biting tension one would expect.

I remember being on edge for much of Quentin Tarantino’s DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012). I was never on edge while watching THE HARDER THEY FALL.

Jonathan Majors is very good as Nat Love. He gives Love a quiet disposition which makes the character a thoughtful outlaw and one who has earned his followers’ respect. He’s also as tough as nails, and there’s little doubt that he’s up to the task of taking down a larger than life villain like Rufus Buck.

As that larger than life villain Rufus Buck, Idris Elba does what he always does, which is deliver a solid performance and make his character believable. Unfortunately, the script doesn’t really allow for Elba to do as much as he can do, and his best scene sadly is his last one. The film focuses more on Nat Love than Rufus Buck, and so Elba, while he does get plenty of screen time, doesn’t get to really dominate this movie like he is capable of doing. Elba fared better in the recent DC superhero movie THE SUICIDE SQUAD (2021) as that script allowed him to work at his full potential.

Zazie Beetz is spirited and tough as Mary Fields, the woman in Nat Love’s life, and a valued member of his gang. Regina King is equally as spirited and tough as Trudy Smith, the woman in Rufus Buck’s life. Their climactic fight scene is one of the best scenes in the movie. In fact, I’d argue that it’s a more riveting sequence than the confrontation between Love and Buck.

Also standing out is LaKeith Stanfield as Cherokee Bill, the fastest gun in Buck’s camp. Stanfield delivers a terrific performance, as he did in the recent JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH (2021), where he played Bill O’Neal.

Delroy Lindo also turns in a commanding performance as Marshall Bass Reeves, a nice follow-up to his strong performance in Spike Lee’s DA 5 BLOODS (2020).

I also enjoyed R J Cyler as Jim Beckworth, Edi Gathegi as Bill Pickett, and Danielle Deadwyler as Cuffee, three other members of Love’s gang. Each of these folks have distinctive personalities which makes them all very watchable.

And all of these characters by the way are based on real people. As the opening subtitles state, the story is fiction, but the people actually existed.

For the most part I liked THE HARDER THEY FALL. Its energetic lively style is infectious, so it’s difficult not to enjoy this one. However, it’s unable to lift its standard plot into anything special or memorable, so at times, even with its stylized violence and notable characters and strong performances, it doesn’t resonate any deeper than a glorified music video.

And at two hours and ten minutes, that’s a long music video.

To be fair, THE HARDER THEY FALL has its moments, and there are times where it is spot on and does resonate. But there simply aren’t a lot of these moments.

Not enough for me to fall hard for this one.

—END—

BLOOD RED SKY (2021) – Netflix Action Horror Movie Soars

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BLOOD RED SKY (2021), a new Netflix action thriller horror movie which hails from Germany, reminded me a bite…er, a bit of the classic Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino vampire movie FROM DUSK TO DAWN (1996) starring George Clooney, in that the first half is a hard hitting thriller, and then everything changes when the supernatural elements emerge in the film’s second half.

The big difference is that in FROM DUSK TO DAWN the audience found themselves rooting for the violent criminals played by George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino once they were pitted against a gang of vampires, whereas here in BLOOD RED SKY, the audience roots for the supernatural character.

In BLOOD RED SKY, a mother Nadja (Peri Baumeister) and her young son Elias (Carl Anton Koch) board a transatlantic flight to New York because Nadja is very ill and is seeking out a specialist to help her with a blood disease. But the flight is commandeered by a group of terrorists. To survive and protect her son, Nadja reveals the truth about her condition which is more than just a disease, but rather a supernatural affliction that makes her a force to be reckoned with.

Yup. It’s SNAKES ON A PLANE (2006) meets NOSFERATU (1922).

Actually, that makes the film sound campy, and BLOOD RED SKY isn’t campy at all. It’s deadly serious.

And it works.

I really enjoyed BLOOD RED SKY.

The first half is a riveting action thriller about a plane hijacking as seen through the eyes of a young boy and his mother. Carl Anton Koch is very good as Elias, the bright young boy who is happy to be helping his mother on this trip as they seek out a cure for her condition. His reaction when he believes his mother has been murdered is authentic and moving.

Peri Baumeister in these early scenes makes for a sufficiently sick mother, pale, weak, and struggling to find the strength to even get on the plane. And later when she becomes an undead vigilante, she is horrific and frightening.

Kais Setti plays Farid, a man flying alone who befriends Elias when they strike up a conversation in the airport while Elias is waiting for his mom to return from the restroom. His character is probably the one audiences will identify with most, as he is the everyday person caught up in the middle of the action, the man who is willing to help fight back against the terrorists and also protect Elias as best he can.

Dominic Purcell plays Berg, the menacing leader of the terrorists, but it’s Alexander Scheer who steals the show as the loose cannon terrorist Eightball who likes to shoot first and ask questions later. He’s also the terrorist who is up to the challenge of taking on Nadja in her new condition, and he uses it to his advantage.

Director Peter Thorwarth keeps the first half of the movie intense with scenes of heartless terrorists on the plane, and later turns things up a notch to the point where they become downright insane once the supernatural elements enter the movie. There are a lot of suspenseful scenes throughout as well as plenty of violent bloody ones. And while in general this one isn’t really scary, there are a couple of well-crafted frightening moments, one in particular being in a flashback sequence where Nadja is searching for her missing husband and finds herself exploring an empty farmhouse. There’s a moment in this sequence which shows the origins of her condition that made me recoil. Good stuff!

The screenplay by director Thorwarth and Stefan Holtz is a good one. The dialogue is first-rate throughout. One thing I wasn’t crazy about was the construct of the plot, which begins with the plane landing and then tells the rest of the story via flashback. To me, this ruined any chances for a suspenseful ending, as we know the plane lands from the get-go. A riveting landing scene at the film’s end would have made the conclusion that much more exciting.

But I loved the idea for this story, mixing a hard-hitting terrorist plot with the supernatural, all of it happening on board a plane. I was entertained from start to finish.

I also really enjoyed the vampire make-up, which is reminiscent of Count Orlok in NOSFERATU, and this is most likely on purpose.

The movie is in both English and German, with English subtitles.

If you’re looking for a high concept action horror movie, look no further than BLOOD RED SKY.

It soars.

—END—

GHOSTS OF WAR (2020) – World War II Haunted House Movie Not-Half Bad

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GHOSTS OF WAR (2020) offers a neat premise for a horror movie: five Allied soldiers in occupied France in 1944 are deployed to a huge mansion once home to the Nazis, and their mission is to watch over it until reinforcements arrive. Easy peasy, right? Not so fast! Because this place is haunted!

The film also gets off to a strong start with a creepy opening sequence featuring the soldiers sleeping in the woods, as one soldier awakes to spy an eerie countenance in the wooded wilderness. Yikes!

In GHOSTS OF WAR, five soldiers, Chris (Brenton Thwaites), Eugene (Skylar Astin), Tappert (Kyle Gallner), Kirk (Theo Rossi) and Butchie (Alan Ritchson), weary from battling Nazis in the French countryside, relish the mission of “house-sitting” an empty mansion for a few days. To them, it means sleeping in beds, access to food and beverages, and some much needed shelter from the unknown horrors awaiting them every day and night on their trek through the French back roads. They are rattled and on the verge of becoming unhinged. This mission has arrived at just the right time.

But their euphoria is short-lived, as they begin to see strange apparations and hear frightening sounds in the middle of the night. It doesn’t take them long to realize that the mansion is downright haunted!

As I said, GHOSTS OF WAR gets off to a creepy start with its effective opening scene, and then things continue, as the first half of this one is a solid mix of horrifying war violence combined with sinister spectral threats once the soldiers reach the mansion. It’s a winning combination.

I enjoyed the first half of this movie a lot. Everything works, and there’s not a slow or dull moment to be found. About halfway through, the soldiers finally make the realization that the mansion is haunted, and actually have a refreshing conversation about just what that means: is it being haunted by a group of people who died there, or is the place itself evil, attracting spirits and demons from all over?

At this point, they decide to come up with a plan as to how to proceed, and it’s here where the film slows down a bit, as their investigation into the house’s background simply isn’t as compelling as the relentless horrors thrown at us in the film’s first half.

Then things get worse. Sort of.

See, there’s a plot twist. Ah, the dreaded plot twist! As plot twists goes, this one is pretty damn good. The problem is, its execution is pretty damn bad! The scene which reveals the twist and sets the stage for the big “reveal” of the film, is terribly written and features rushed and pretty bad dialogue. It also features a concept that doesn’t make a lot of sense, at least not in the way the film tries to explain it.

But then the film continues with its “reveal” and at long last we see why things happened the way they did. This part I liked, and it does make sense, if you can get past the silly explanation scene in the middle. In other words, the “how” this is all happening still needs work, and I didn’t completely buy it, but the “why” things happened, that part did work for me.

There’s also a strong clue of a plot twist early on in the movie, which at first I thought was an example of some pretty bad film research. One of the characters references seeing old horror movies in his childhood, and mentions some films like I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF which wasn’t released until 1957, years after World War II! But it turns out this wasn’t an error. Nuff said about that!

GHOSTS OF WAR was written and directed by Eric Bress, who wrote the first two FINAL DESTINATION movies and also wrote and directed THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT (2004), so he’s no stranger to bizarre time shifts in stories. I enjoyed the pace of this one during its first half which I thought was pretty relentless. Bress sets up some eerie ghost scenes as well as some brutal war-related sequences.

The story and the writing is also strong for the most part, until it reaches its ludicrous idea to enable the plot twist. If you can get past that, you won’t mind GHOSTS OF WAR. And once you get past the sloppy transition, the final reveal is actually very good and quite haunting.

The cast is solid. Brenton Thwaites is excellent as lead character Chris, the person the audience will most relate to, as the story is largely seen through his eyes. Thwaites plays Dick Grayson on the TV show TITANS (2018-present).

Skylar Astin is also very good as Eugene, the one character who can read German which becomes useful when the soldiers discover a journal left in the house written in German.

Kyle Gallner fares the best as Tappert, the most unhinged character in the group. Tapper gets carried away when encountering Nazis. He would have felt right at home in Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009).

Theo Rossi, who starred on the TV shows SONS OF ANARCHY (2008–2014) and LUKE CAGE (2016-2018) plays Kirk, and Alan Ritchson plays Butchie, rounding out the cast.

GHOSTS OF WAR is a decent horror movie which gets off to a riveting start before eventually becoming a mixed bag, due mostly to a sloppily conceived plot twist which fails to make a convincing transition to an otherwise chilling conclusion.

—-END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

DARK CORNERS, Michael Arruda’s second short story collection, contains ten tales of horror, six reprints and four stories original to this collection.

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Waiting for you in Dark Corners are tales of vampires, monsters, werewolves, demonic circus animals, and eternal darkness. Be prepared to be both frightened and entertained. You never know what you will find lurking in dark corners.

Ebook: $3.99. Available at http://www.crossroadspress.com and at Amazon.com.  Print on demand version available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/1949914437.

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

How far would you go to save your family? Would you change the course of time? That’s the decision facing Adam Cabral in this mind-bending science fiction adventure by Michael Arruda.

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

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Michael Arruda reviews horror movies throughout history, from the silent classics of the 1920s, Universal horror from the 1930s-40s, Hammer Films of the 1950s-70s, all the way through the instant classics of today. If you like to read about horror movies, this is the book for you!

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, first short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

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Print cover
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Ebook cover

Michael Arruda’s first short story collection, featuring a wraparound story which links all the tales together, asks the question: can you have a relationship when your partner is surrounded by the supernatural? If you thought normal relationships were difficult, wait to you read about what the folks in these stories have to deal with. For the love of horror!

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

AD ASTRA (2019) – Emotionless On Purpose, Science Fiction Flick Still Dull

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Remember the famous tagline from ALIEN (1979), In space no one can hear you scream? 

Well, the tagline for AD ASTRA (2019), the new science fiction movie by writer/director James Gray, and starring Brad Pitt as an astronaut searching for his missing father on a mission to save the Earth, should be In space no one can hear you snore.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Yep, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few moviegoers found themselves dozing during this one.

And that’s because AD ASTRA is as cold as space and just as devoid of emotion. Now, admittedly, this is on purpose, since the main character prides himself on his lack of emotion and detachment from others, all in the name of remaining focused on his missions, and this is definitely a main theme in the movie, that this type of thinking takes a toll on human relationships. But it also takes a toll on the human audience’s patience.

Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) became an astronaut to follow in his father’s footsteps. His father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) is remembered as the most famous astronaut of all time, as he led one mission after another in search of extraterrestrial life, and his final mission took him to the far reaches of space where he was never heard from again.

But now strange energy surges are threatening Earth, and Roy’s superiors inform him (without really showing him any proof, by the way) that they believe his father is still alive, and that he’s responsible for these deadly energy surges. They believe Clifford McBride has become deranged, and they also believe that Roy will be able to reach his father in ways they can’t and convince him to stop. Seriously, this came across as such a flimsy excuse for a mission that I almost laughed out loud. I mean, they’re going to send an astronaut halfway across the solar system because he might be able to convince his dad to stop, when it still hasn’t been 100% established that his father is responsible in the first place? Ludicrous.

Anyway, Roy agrees, or as he says, what choice did I have? See, the space agency in this movie is one of those— repeat after me–– evil companies!—- that show up often in movies as sort of a de facto villain. If you don’t do what we want, Roy, you won’t be coming back. That sort of thing.

On his way to find his father, Roy has plenty of time to reflect on his life, especially on how his focus on his career has affected his relationships— his wife, for instance, has left him— and how he pretty much is alone.

And when the film talks about Roy’s journey discovering secrets that challenge the nature of human existence, that’s what it is really talking about: human interactions. That’s pretty much the theme of the movie. We can’t succeed alone. We need human interactions and relationships to be human. And the film seems to be making its point by subjecting us to two hours of Roy’s brooding journey as proof. See, this guy alone is a snooze.

AD ASTRA reminded me of an old episode of the classic STAR TREK TV show. I could just see Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beaming down from the Enterprise on a planet in search of the brilliant scientist who went missing and may now be deranged. In fact, there was an episode just like this. And it was much shorter and much more interesting than anything that happens here in AD ASTRA.

Speaking of STAR TREK, Brad Pitt shows about as much emotion in this one as Mr. Spock. Again, this is by design, but it makes for a long two hours. In fact, this one felt more like three hours in the theater. And Pitt’s stoic narration sounds like someone being forced to read the dictionary.

Pitt was much more enjoyable a few weeks back as stuntman Cliff Booth in Quentin Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD (2019). I wouldn’t place AD ASTRA up there with Pitt’s better films.

And Pitt is pretty much it. Everyone else in this one is reduced to small supporting roles, including Donald Sutherland who plays a family friend, and Liv Tyler who plays Roy’s wife. In the supporting cast, Tommy Lee Jones probably fares the best, and that’s not saying much. He doesn’t show up till the end, but at least he has some emotional scenes.

The ending is pretty much the best part of the movie, but don’t expect anything mind-blowing a la INTERSTELLAR (2014) or ARRIVAL (2016). The ending here works on a much smaller scale, but it’s still satisfying, not just in a grandiose science fiction sort of way. It works because the father-son reunion is the first time the film really becomes emotional, and the scene where Roy reacts to his father’s decision is the best moment in the film. It’s the moment where Roy finally loses control and allows emotion to overtake him. And then later this allows him to see his life differently. Satisfying, yes, but not exactly awe-inspiring science fiction material.

Still, the point is well-taken, and it fits in with the general theme of the film.

The movie looks good, as the scenes in space are crisp and clean. Yet, like the story, the visuals don’t exactly awe or inspire. Probably the best sequence in the film, aside from the ending, is when the ship carrying Roy to the faraway space station makes a detour to answer a distress call. But even this scene is more subdued than it could have been.

Writer/director James Gray has made a competent yet cold space drama that could have used more drama. It’s all very robotic, and again, that seems to be the point, that the human race has lost its way in terms of human interactions. I get the message. But that didn’t make the film any more enjoyable. Gray also wrote and directed THE LOST CITY OF Z (2016), a biography adventure that also struggled with emotions. Maybe Gray should try his hand at a movie about Vulcans.

Ad astra, by the way, is a Latin phrase that means “to the stars.”  And AD ASTRA the movie seems to be saying before we concentrate on the stars we might want to get ourselves in order here on Earth first.

—END—

 

 

 

 

THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON (2019) – Story of Down Syndrome Youth One of Year’s Best

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Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, and newcomer Zack Gottsagen in THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON (2019).

THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON (2019) is certainly a feel-good movie.

It tells a winning story, and with its talented, experienced cast, it delivers the goods.

THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON is the story of a young man with Down syndrome named Zak (Zack Gottsagen, making his film debut). His family abandoned him, and so he is living in a retirement home. Even though he receives attentive care from his case worker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), Zak is unhappy.

He continually watches a video featuring pro-wrestler The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church) which advertises the wrestler’s pro-wrestling school in North Carolina. Zak wants to travel to that school, meet his idol, and become a wrestler. With the help of his roommate Carl (Bruce Dern), Zak escapes.

On the run, Zak crosses paths with Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a drifter who’s on the run himself, fleeing from some undesirables who are out for revenge after Tyler purposely damaged some of their property. Tyler is an unhappy man who’s trying to exorcise some personal demons, most involving the death of his older brother. Tyler initially wants no part of Zak, but after saving Zak from a bully, he changes his tune and listens to Zak’s story of wanting to meet The Salt Water Redneck.

Tyler promises to get Zak to North Carolina, and the two embark on a journey to fulfill Zak’s dreams, while being pursued by the men who are after Tyler.

Meanwhile, Eleanor learns that the retirement home is not going to report Zak’s disappearance to the state, and they task her with finding him herself. Furthermore, the home intends to transfer him to a facility which houses some rather dangerous occupants. When she finally catches up with Zak and Tyler and sees the bond which Zak has formed with the drifter, she’s not in any hurry to bring Zak back to an uncertain future with the state, and so she joins the two on their quest to make Zak’s dream become a reality.

It may sound sappy, but it’s not. Far from it, THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON is a heartwarming film that has a lot to say about relationships and how to treat people with disabilities.

One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Eleanor first catches up with Zak and Tyler and instantly becomes very protective and parental with Zak, and Tyler tells her to stop acting that way, that Zak is more than capable of taking care of himself. In fact, Tyler teaches Zak how to swim, how to shoot a gun, and most importantly, how to believe in himself.

I really liked the way Zak was depicted in this movie, and I thought the portrayal of a man with Down syndrome here was extremely accurate.

The film does such a powerful job with its story elements, that the film’s climax, which involves Zak’s finally getting his chance inside a wrestling ring, at the same time that the men chasing Tyler close in for the kill, actually produced audible gasps from the audience. It’s been a while since I experienced that in a theater. [Okay, it hasn’t been that long, as there were plenty of gasps at the end of AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018), but before that, it had been a while!]

The cast here is awesome.

Zack Gottsagen, who has Down syndrome in real life, makes his film debut here and is flawless in the role of Zak. He obviously nails the authenticity of the role, but more than that, he possesses a screen presence and timing that someone who does not have acting talent would not have been able to do. When Tyler asks him to repeat Rule #1 to him, and Zak says “Party!” not only is it a fresh moment in the movie, but it was also ad-libbed by Gottsagen.

I’ve never been a big fan of Shia LeBeouf, but he knocks it out of the park here, in a role that was originally intended for Ben Foster. It just might be the best screen performance I’ve seen LeBeouf give. He makes Tyler real, gritty, and earthy, and he makes him just as authentic a character as Gottsagen makes Zak.

Dakota Johnson is also perfect as Eleanor. I’ve enjoyed her in other movies, films like BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018) and NEED FOR SPEED (2014), and I’m so glad she’s moved on from the awful FIFTY SHADES OF GREY movies. She’s a talented actor, and I can’t wait to see what she will do next. Here, in THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON, she creates in Eleanor a character who’s sincere, well-meaning, and also cognizant that the state isn’t really the best provider for a person with Zak’s needs.

Thomas Haden Church also does a fine job during the film’s climax as Zak’s wrestling hero, The Salt Water Redneck. And any time you can have Bruce Dern in a movie’s cast, even in a small supporting role, it’s a major plus. He only has a couple of minutes of screen time, but he makes the most of it, similar to what he did earlier this year in Quentin Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (2019).

THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON was written and directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, and they do a phenomenal job. The characters are all sharply written, no clichés here, and the story moves along at a solid pace that keeps the audience riveted to the story throughout. It’s also beautifully photographed, in the southern waters of Georgia and North Carolina.

The Peanut Butter Falcon refers to the name Zak chooses to be his wrestling alter ego when he’s in the ring.

I really enjoyed THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON.

It’s one of the best movies of the year.

—END—

 

ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD (2019) – Tarantino’s 9th Film Enters Fairy Tale Territory

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At first glance,  ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD (2019), the ninth film by Quentin Tarantino, seems to be an exercise in style over substance.

It takes place in Hollywood in 1969, and Tarantino masterfully captures the look, feel, and very essence of the time, with impeccable costumes, set design, and a killer soundtrack. Watching this movie, I really felt as if I had been transported via time machine back to 1969. The experience was that authentic.

Tarantino also gets top-notch performances from everyone involved, especially his two leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie.

The style, the filmmaking expertise, it’s all there.

But the substance? The story?

That’s harder to find because ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD takes its sweet time, and for most of its two-hour and forty-one minute running time, it’s not in a hurry to get anywhere, and so it tells its multiple stories with as much urgency as two guys sitting inside a saloon drinking whiskey. In short, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

And yet it’s told with an affection that clearly shows this time period and these characters and their stories were a labor of love by Tarantino. And it’s all light and funny, in spite of the fact that it’s built around one of the darkest chapters in Hollywood history, the brutal murder of a pregnant Sharon Tate and her friends by Charles Manson’s insane minions. There is a strong sense of dread throughout the movie, knowing what’s to come, and then— well, then Tarantino decides to have some fun at our expense.

ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD is mostly the story of two men, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).  Dalton is somewhat of a “has-been,” as his last major starring role in a western TV series was from a decade earlier. Now, he’s reduced to playing the villains on 1960s TV shows like MANNIX and THE FBI.

This is clearly wearing on Dalton and is one of the prevalent themes in the movie, of how quickly success can pass one by, and how artists of a certain age need to work harder and be open to reinventing themselves if they want to remain relevant. There’s a lot of truth to this part of the movie. As we age, we have to make adjustments. One of the ways Dalton eventually reinvents himself is by going to Italy to make “spaghetti westerns,” and so it’s easy to see here how Dalton’s story is inspired by the real life story of Clint Eastwood, who did the same thing in the 1960s.

Stuntman Cliff Booth’s best days are also behind him, but he’s taking it much better than Dalton, because, as he says, he was never a star to begin with and so as far as he is concerned he’s still living the dream. He enjoys being Dalton’s “gofer,” driving the actor wherever he needs to go, being a handyman around Dalton’s home, and just hanging out.

Dalton, who lives in a Hollywood mansion, is miserable, while Cliff, who lives in a trailer behind a drive-in movie theater, is happy, but this doesn’t stop the two men from being best friends. They truly like each other and care for each other, and the dynamic between DiCaprio and Pitt in these roles is a highlight of the movie.

And while Dalton and Cliff Booth are fictional characters, their famous neighbors, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, are not. They are real, and tragically, Sharon Tate’s life was cut short on August 9, 1969 by the insane groupies of Charles Manson.

So, ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD also tells the parallel story of Sharon Tate, and the film really allows its audience to get to know Tate as a person.

These parallel stories move forward until that fateful night in August 1969, and in spite of the comedic elements of this movie, there is a sense of dread throughout, that builds as the film reaches its conclusion, a conclusion that suddenly introduces a major plot twist allowing the film to keep its light tone. I have to admit, for me, this was a head scratcher.

As a result, I’m not so sure ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD works as a whole, but it does have a lot of little parts that work very well.

The best part by far are the two performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. They work really well together, but this isn’t a buddy movie, and so they’re just as good if not better in scenes where they are not together. Some of DiCaprio’s best scenes are when Rick Dalton is acting as the villain in a 60s TV western, trying to prove that he still has what it takes. DiCaprio also enjoys a couple of outstanding scenes with a child actor played by Julia Butters who at one point tells him sincerely that his performance with her was some of the best acting she had ever seen.

Pitt’s Cliff Booth is the livelier of the two characters and the one who is larger than life. Cliff, as we learn later, lives in a veil of infamous secrecy as rumor has it that he killed his wife and got away with it. Cliff also enjoys a fun scene in which he tangles with Bruce Lee, one of the more memorable sequences in the movie. 

Cliff is also one of the connections to the Manson family, as he befriends a young woman Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) who’s part of the Manson clan. And a quick shout-out to Margaret Qualley who steals the few scenes she is in with one of the most energetic performances in the movie. She’s terrific.

The scene where Cliff drives Pussycat back to the ranch where the Manson family resides is a perfect microcosm for the entire movie. Cliff brings Pussycat to the ranch, a place he worked at years earlier. Concerned that this group of hippies may be taking advantage of the ranch’s elderly owner, George Spahn (Bruce Dern), Cliff wants to make sure the man is all right.

In an extremely long and meandering sequence, a lot like the entire movie, Cliff gradually makes his way through the various members of the clan, learning where George is supposed to be “napping.” He eventually makes his way to George’s room, and in a scene where you fully expect George to be dead, it turns out he is only napping, and what follows is a highly comedic banter between Brad Pitt and Bruce Dern, which is the route the film ultimately takes.

Which brings us to Sharon Tate. As I said, Margot Robbie is excellent in the role. On the surface, Robbie makes less of an impact than DiCaprio and Pitt because she has far less screen time than they do, but underneath the comedy and the drama Tate’s quiet spirit drives things along, and Robbie’s performance makes this happen.

Unfortunately, people can be defined by their deaths, especially if they were murdered. Tarantino seems to be pushing back against this notion with Sharon Tate. In ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD, Tarantino lovingly crafts Sharon Tate as a real person and not just as a footnote to the Manson murders. The film paints a portrait of Tate as a beautiful person, and really allows that persona to sink into its audience. I liked this. A lot. However, I would have liked it even more had Margot Robbie been given more screen time as Tate. She largely plays second fiddle to main characters Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth.

The entire cast is wonderful. I’ve already mentioned Bruce Dern and Margaret Qualley, but the film also has key contributions from Kurt Russell and Timothy Olyphant.  Also present are Dakota Fanning and Al Pacino, and look fast for Maya Hawke who is currently starring in Season 3 of Netflix’ STRANGER THINGS.

So, you have this meandering movie, which looks terrific and features powerhouse performances by lots of talented actors, with a fairly funny script, although the dialogue is somewhat subdued from the usual Quentin Tarantino fare, and it’s taking its sweet time, taking its audience for a pleasant ride with the knowledge that tragedy awaits. All of this, I didn’t mind and mostly enjoyed.

But it’s the ending of ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD that I find most problematic and is the part of the movie that is the least effective. To avoid spoilers, I will not get into details, but what happens here is the film enters into the realm of alternate reality, and once it does that, well, all that came before must now be looked at with a different lens, and a new question arises, which is, why did we just watch all this? 

In other words, for me, one of the reasons the movie had worked so well up until the ending was it was a piece of historical fiction. Fictional characters were appearing in a real setting (1969 Hollywood) with a canvas of real events in the background. Once these events are changed, the film enters the world of fantasy, of historical reimagining, and once this is done, I don’t think the film possesses the same impact.

In short, to turn this tragic story into a comedy, even with the best intentions, is something I’m not sure entirely works.

At times, ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD seems to be a love letter to Sharon Tate. I liked this part.

At other times, most in fact, it’s a take-no- prisoners shoot-em-up dramedy about an aging movie/TV star and his laid back infallible stunt man. I liked this part, too.

But the last part, the punch line, seems to be Quentin Tarantino’s desire to do what he did to the Nazis in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) to Charles Manson and his “family.” It’s this last part that, while good for some laughs, seems the most out-of-place.  While there are hints in the film that this is where this story is going to go, it still feels jarring to watch the events unfold, events that change history, and thrust the movie head first into fairy tale territory, appropriate I guess for a movie entitled ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD.

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