Thursday, March 15, 2018

The 'Not-So-Critical' Critic: DEATH WISH

The 'Not-So-Critical' Critic: 
on DEATH WISH (2018, 107 minutes, R)

The Quick of It -
When I walked into the theater, I thought it would be nearly empty.  When the lights dimmed and the screen lit up, I thought this action film would be centered on its violent moments (not that this is a bad thing).  I thought there would be little real substance to this film, a film I had a cursory interest in seeing. 

Goes to show…

After the mass influx of remakes, skepticism sets in quickly.  The original DEATH WISH (1974) with Charles Bronson is iconic to the ‘vengeance genre’.  Why take on such a prolific project that will be scrutinized by everyone?  You see, those old-fart critics will remember and idolize the past.  Also, the current social climate with the school shootings at the forefront of everyone’s mind does nothing to help sell tickets.  Now you understand why my thinking was so slanted at the time.

My first mistake was not accounting for the bold and driven director, Eli Roth.  His background is extensive in the film industry, mostly outside of directing.  You can see his love for filmmaking goes into creating a dynamic project rather than making a paycheck.  Yes, I found DEATH WISH to have a number of levels that could have been easily discounted being an action film at its core.  Also, cinematographer Rogier Stoffers and anyone behind the set locations crushed it.  The streets of Chicago could not look any more alive, adding to each set shot and transitional clip something tangible.  This is a full package visually. 

Then, the one thing I didn’t discount is my fanboy addiction to Bruce Willis.  He will always be one of my favorite actors, regardless the role.  Bruce made this his film.  He plays Paul Kersey, a doctor who must find some comfort after his wife was killed and daughter put into a coma from a forceful break-in.  The storyline starts with building that connection between the family, building towards that moment requiring empathy from the observers.  His wife played by Elizabeth Shue (from LEAVING LAS VEGAS, ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING, and THE SAINT) and daughter played by up-and-coming Camila Morrone did not falter.  The result is a film that touches on more than the violent nerve.  You couldn’t help but follow the struggle of Dr. Kersey, finding his therapeutic devices liberating in the extremist of senses.

It’s unfortunate that this film is released at a poorly timed moment.  I do hope it gets some respect.  If nothing else, I also got to see Vincent D’Onofrio still finding work.  Yeah, another fanboy addiction.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

‘Bluray or Bust’ - THOR: RAGNAROK

‘Bluray or Bust’

I look forward to THOR films now, because I get to be more caustic, more insulting and sarcastic.  After THOR: THE DANK WORLD came out four years ago, I have made it a point to include a new insult of that particular installment in every Marvel review I do—partly because it’s fun, but mostly because I still want a direct apology from the studio for that garbage heap of a “film”.

Yet my fun is now being spoiled by director Taika Waititi (totally giggle every time I say his last name out loud) (and by the way, he is the dude that directed the masterfully hilarious WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS) has crafted a hybrid of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and IRON MAN that works… no, you did not read that wrong.

He pulls off a successful Thor movie by not focusing entirely on its titular (I’m so punny!) character.  You get a whole lotta Hulk, you get the scene chewing Cate Blanchett as Thor’s evil sister, you get Doctor Strange, and you get Jeff Freaking Goldblum.  It is with these characters that you get your biggest laughs (not so much with Cate, but she does garner a few chuckles), and the longer lasting impressions.  Now for the “hey, can I borrow some plot points?” part of the review: you also get a character made out of rocks—who also has a pint-sized sidekick, one with tattoos on her face who could be a future romantic interest for Thor, imprisonment… any of that reminding you of GUARDIANS yet?  And the Iron Man thing—I’m sorry, but Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) owns the market on snark when it comes to the Marvel Universe.  Most notably in his dealings with the boy in IRON MAN III; the quick and easy banter, the sarcasm—RAGNAROK is literally dripping with these elements.

For the most part, they work, but there are several instances in which the jokes fall a bit flat.  And relying on one Led Zeppelin song (twice, no less) to add buoyancy to the moment and not include any other relative music?  Seriously?  Instead, Wayboobie—sorry, Waititi, relies on a score that sounds ripped right out of a bad eighties film.  On second thought, thanks for playing “Immigrant Song” twice—it was a nice break from that terrible score.

As far as the plot of the film goes: Thor (Chris Hemsworth) finds out he has an evil sister, who kicks him and Loki (Tom Hiddleston, who also hijacks several scenes) out of Asgard so she can take over (see: kill everyone).  They both wind up on a planet ruled by The Grandmaster (Goldblum, playing the part with more snark and giddy self-awareness than anything else you’ve ever seen him do) whose main form of entertainment is fight-to-the-death gladiator-style matches.  As usual, no spoilers, but if you’ve seen the trailers, you know the plot already.  Also, if you’ve seen a Marvel film before, you know the main character’s spin, because you’ve seen it so many times before (hero is heroic, hero loses power, hero learns to believe in him or herself—why hello again, IRON MAN III…)

As with most Marvel releases, there are a ton of special features, including a horribly unentertaining gag reel.  There are not too many surprises in the docs, although I am the geek that enjoys the behind-the-scenes stuff; watching people be creative is always fun, but these special features seem to focus more on the lighter side of Thor this time around.  Which is fine, there is some funny stuff here.  But it all seems like the same vibe as the film, and I, for one, appreciate a closer look at the technical work done to complete a film, effects laden or otherwise.

Thor’s next go will be in the upcoming AVENGERS film, due out at the end of April.  While he always seems to do better in an ensemble piece (obviously, because I liked this one), it will be interesting to see if the studio opts for another stand-alone film for the character.  And after this two hour and twenty minute apology letter for THOR: THE CRAP WORLD, I’m game.

Grade: B
Special Features: B-
Blu-ray Necessary: Most definitely

-- T.S. Kummelman

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

‘Cakes That Kill and Girls That Punch: What You’re Missing on NETFLIX’

‘Cakes That Kill and Girls That Punch: What You’re Missing on NETFLIX’


JESSICA JONES (2015, NR—definitely for MATURE audiences, 13 episodes per season, MARVEL STUDIOS/NETFLIX)

I am a huge fan of Jessica Jones.  The first season was a gritty, magical, in-your-face moral and social diatribe that did not pull any punches, and dealt with feminine issues in a wholly kick-ass manner.

The second season, thankfully, does the same, but does so under the guidance of an entirely female pool of directors.  And guys and gals, that does absolutely nothing to soften the blows.  If season one was a gentle yet firm study of the horror and effects of rape and gender manipulation, the second is a timely and quite absorbing look at women, be they mothers, attorneys, or private investigators, taking charge, and not taking any crap from anyone.

The start of the season finds Jones (played by the versatile Krysten Ritter) training Malcolm (Eka Darville, solidifying himself as an absolutely necessary part of the show) as her “Girl Friday”.  Watching them go through the motions of him readying her for the day ahead is gratifying in the basest of sense; Malcolm grounds her, gets her on her feet, helps her define her purpose—for that day, at least.  It doesn’t take long for them to realize, through their involvement with a “super” who goes by the unfortunate name of “The Whizzer”, that someone is killing off Supers (people with powers) and those associated with them. Which isn’t quite accurate, but as any of my twelve regular readers can attest, I don’t do spoilers, so that summary is as close as I’m going to get.

Yes, David Tennant shows up again as the gleefully psychopathic Kilgrave, but not in the way one would expect.  And someone from Jessica’s past plays a key role (played by Janet McTeer, in a performance that is both stunning and dangerously sympathetic), threatening to undo any of the healing our heroine has been able to do over the years.  But by expanding on the series regulars’ own storylines, we get a more fleshed out sophomore season.  Trish (Rachael Taylor) is on the hunt for identity via super powers, the aforementioned Malcolm is recovering from the addiction Kilgrave set upon him, and—and quite possibly the most demanding storyline of the season—Carrie-Anne Moss’s Jeri Hogarth spends the season scratching and clinging to her mortality.  Her desperate fight is a performance that lifts her above even that of the first season, and I thought she should have gotten an Emmy that time around. 

What this season doesn’t do is mention Jessica’s last appearance on Netflix, last year’s “The Defenders”—which is a good thing.  Giving these different heroes the opportunity to stand on their own is what makes them work so well…okay, it works for “Daredevil” and “Jones”.  “Luke Cage” has yet to fully win me over, and “The Iron Fist” is just plain stupid.  Like, THOR: THE DUFUS WORLD stupid.  But worse.

So by not trying to pick up where “Defenders” left off, and not having to rely on that storyline, keeps “Jones” separate—and quite frankly, more honest.  Jessica does not have all the answers, even though she still thinks most of them can be found at the bottom of a bottle.  But she doesn’t have to rely on another Super for help.  She is a strong woman, and not just in the literal sense.  There have been other reviewers that have marveled at the timeliness of the show, so far as the “metoo movement”, and the women in Hollywood standing up against the physical and mental abuse they have suffered at the hands of the industry for decades.  But Jessica was tackling those issues ALMOST THREE YEARS AGO, kids!  One could almost make the argument that the series—perhaps even the character herself—was the frontrunner of these recent events.

Season two has its own battles to face, and the bonds between women is at the forefront.  Don’t take this as a show that alienates men; it doesn’t, although what it does is give its female characters thought processes and abilities that the industry has always played off as male characteristics only.  Thankfully, it is still refreshing to see Jessica Jones kicking ass, to see Jeri battling board members with her brain and attitude.  “Jones” wants you to question the literal meanings of things, be it the roles genders play in society, or derogatory words.  Literally no other series (or platform, for that matter) has ever approached these matters from this perspective.

Netflix has yet to announce a Season Three, but with so many active storylines left open at the end of this one, I find it hard to believe there wouldn’t be another.  With a hero this defining, it would be a shame to see more Iron Twit and not more Jones.

Series Grade: A

-- T.S. Kummelman