Wednesday, January 16, 2019

‘Blu-ray or Bust’ - THE EQUALIZER 2

‘Blu-ray or Bust’

I love me some Denzel Washington. 

The sixty-four-year-old Oscar winner does not shy away from many roles; we’ve seen him as a proud infantryman in GLORY, a defiant leader in MALCOLM X, and a paralyzed ex-detective in THE BONE COLLECTOR.  His face is iconic, and many of his roles are, too.  Unfortunately, his second turn as ex-military man turned anonymous vigilante Robert McCall isn’t one of those characters that resonates quite as much.

That isn’t to say his performance is bad—they never are.  But director Anton Fuqua takes this sequel into territory the first film never ventured into: TV land.  There are a few subplots in this one that feel ripped straight from an episodic drama on the little screen.  There is enough of it to muddle the goings on with the main plot, which involves a rogue military unit looking to cover up some illegal shenanigans (please, stop me if you haven’t heard THAT particular plot before…).  So much so that at times, I was hoping for a commercial break involving the Lifecall Button or a preview for the next episode of “Murder, She Wrote”.

This wouldn’t be a horrible device if it was something that had been explored the first time around—or, at least, not so heavily here.  There is much to this film that feels too familiar, too rehashed, for any of it to feel fresh.  The entire thing could have all been set in the seventies, and the difference in time periods would not have made a single difference.

However… Mr. Fuqua and company pull this all off so confidently that none of it comes across as mistakes, rather as an homage to the original television show.  They create that sense of familiarity and never let up on; partly to make you feel comfortable with Mr. McCall’s choices and his peculiarities, and also to that fans of the decades-old television show would not feel that their character had gone to waste.  Mr. Washington does a fine job as always, bringing a rough compassion to a man that has little time for niceties.  His McCall is a broken man being held together by old, fraying tape, one that sees mostly badness in the world even while he tries to make it a better place to live and grow up in.

Cinematographer Oliver Wood (STEP BROTHERS, THE BOURNE SUPREMACY) brings the city streets to life as a gritty backdrop to the onscreen action, and it complements the character well.  He even handles the action during a hurricane finale with a careful eye, and it brings tension to the action that might have been missing in less confident hands.  The score by Harry Gregson-Williams (SHREK, THE MARTIAN) also lends to the feel of the film, grounding it when necessary, tugging on the heart strings at other times.

The Blu-ray release is chockful of special features—almost an hour’s worth.  The best ones are the breakdowns of some of the action sequences, and the interview with Mr. Washington as he shares his love of the character he is portraying.

This could be the last entry in this particular series, however; Mr. Fuqua recently wrapped production on two documentaries, and is producing a biography called THE MAN WHO MADE IT SNOW.  And Mr. Washington?  He can do whatever he wants; talent of his caliber never really sleeps, and he can afford to be picky about his projects.  Let’s just hope the next director he works with is pickier with the script.

Film Grade: B
Special Features: B
Blu-ray Necessary: Recommended

-- T.S. Kummelman

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

‘Blu-ray or Bust’ - THE PREDATOR


I’ve always been a fan of Shane Black’s film career.  This is the man that wrote LETHAN WEAPON, KISS KISS BANG BANG, IRON MAN 3, and THE freaking MONSTER SQUAD, for crying out loud.

So, who better to jump start a series that went woefully off course when Fox decided to put Predators and Aliens in the same movies?  Who better to write (er, yeah—I meant “right”) the wrongs of some poorly executed sequels than the man that revived Iron Man and presented director Renny Harlin with one of his only chances at making a good movie (THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT)?

What Shane Black attempts to do here is renew interest in a movie villain that had, in the last decade, become cannon fodder for a studio that didn’t know what to do with the character anymore.  Let’s face it: the last good PREDATOR film had Danny Glover and the late Bill Paxton in the cast, and that was waaayy back in 1990.

And he nearly pulls it off.  With co-writer Fred Dekker, whom he last collaborated with on 1987’s MONSTER SQUAD, he has crafted quite possibly the funniest movie of the year.  Seriously.  There are more intentionally funny moments in this film than there were in the last three Kevin Hart films.  The script is fresh, the characters more than well-developed by each individual actor, and the action sequences are highly executed.  This time around, a rogue Predator comes to earth in an effort to actually help mankind.  Only problem, he’s a rogue—none of the other Predators like him.  So they send a bully after him, and that is where a ragtag bunch of military vets, all bound for a “psychiatric facility”, come in.

The cast of characters that Misters Black and Dekker create are quite unique to the series; each is crazy in their own way.   These men are no longer active duty for good reasons, and each is more than qualified to fend for themselves so long as they have artillery in their hands.  Of course, there is a message about teamwork here somewhere, but Mr. Black handles any moral issues so flippantly that you cannot help but laugh right along with him.  You get the feeling the entire time that he and the entire crew are including you in on the joke, and most of them are original and damn funny.

But then you get to the last half hour—thirty minutes of script in which no one really could figure out how to end this movie.  There are several retreaded ideas in the final stretch of the film that may leave you scratching your head, or at least trying to count the number of movies you’ve seen this all done in before.  That, unfortunately, brings down a film that was strong and promising—promising, hell, it was damn well delivering!—for the first two-thirds, and then got mired in its own insensibilities by the final act.  That is the biggest disappointment here, really: that neither of the two writers could figure an original way out of the story.  You get a bunch of fine actors—including Keegan-Michael Key, Olivia Munn, and Thomas Jane—delivering excellent performances, and then…just…meh.

The special features include several docs about the cast and, most notably, Mr. Black’s involvement with the franchise (he acted in the first film).  There are also deleted scenes, but one of the most entertaining is the inclusion of The Predator Holiday Special, which takes stop motion animation to an entirely new level.

THE PREDATOR did not bank quite enough at the box office to warrant a sequel.  But with Disney close to finalizing their deal to purchase Fox, I doubt this entry would be considered a franchise killer.  And while it may be the best Predator film since PREDATOR 2, and although it doesn’t hit on quite the same level as the first two, it is at least a helluva lot better than any of the AVP entries.  Those ones made you laugh without meaning to, which sets this one apart.

Film Grade: B-
Special Features: B
Blu-ray Necessary: Of Course—explosions and gunshots and Predators, oh my…

Thursday, January 3, 2019

The 'Not-So-Critical' Critic: AQUAMAN

The 'Not-So-Critical' Critic: 
on AQUAMAN (2018, 143 minutes, PG-13)

The Quick of It -
The DCU has struggled with its appeal to the mass population… so the critics say.  Most of this, I feel, is the result of critics writing pieces to get exposure (meaning – “click bait”) and the media to find cause to disrupt and churn the ‘pot of trolling’.

To put the DC bashing into perspective, Aquaman has crushed a few records while still feeling the heat.  I would believe the masses should take this cue that critics are blowing %$#@ into their wordy pieces to validate their existence.  And here I sit… 

The story follows Arthur’s, aka Aquaman (Mr. Momoa), origin and his first contact with Atlantis.  Jason Momoa, the man’s-man of the silver screen at the moment, locks this role down.  Unfortunately for Arthur, his regal duties are called upon to stop a war being instigated by his half-brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and INSIDIOUS fame).  Mera, played by Amber Heard (THE RUM DIARY and 3 DAYS TO KILL), and should mention Orm’s betrothed, seeks Arthur out to stop the war between land and sea. 

So, do the critics have some merit in their words?  To start with my issues, they are only just on the spectrum of caring.  Yes, some of the dialogue feels forced – wanting the characters to have soft moments in this action barrage.  The story has some moments that seem disjointed, not having a complete flow.  Running over two hours, I am sure the cutting room floor has those needed pieces.  But, as a complete product, Aquaman delivers exactly what you want.

Momoa brings this character to life with his wit, good looks, and full acceptance in this character.  Director James Wan (a horror phenom – SAW, INSIDIOUS, THE CONJURING) uses his storytelling skills with Momoa’s charisma to give this superhero film enough heart to stand on its own.  As proof, and you may have seen in the trailer, the scene in the aquarium totally sells his always-made-fun-of ability to talk to fish.  The final shot makes you stare in almost awe at such a simple thing.  This is of course supported by composer Rupert Gregson-Williams, of WONDER WOMAN, HACKSAW RIDGE, and THE CROWN.  With his ability to weave an oratory tale in harmony with the visual feast and having a familiar DC sound (thanks to his contribution to WONDER WOMAN), the package comes giftwrapped as a DC set.   

To also point out another reason to venture to the local theater, James Wan incorporates an innovative action sequence process with camera shots that engages you on the level of the BOURNE series… but different.  You get the chaos of combat while still not losing sight of what is happen, like the mid-twirling and eye-crossing scenes in TRANSFOMERS.  And again, DC has the best villains.  Black Manta, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, portrays a character with depth and personality.  Seeing him with his father (Michael Beach) solidifies their sub-plot.

Take the leap off the proverbial cliff, it will be worth it.  If nothing else, you get to see plenty of Jason Momoa and Amber Heard.  Male or female, or even a rabbit, you will find the viewing ‘pretty’.

Grade: A

Wednesday, January 2, 2019


‘Blu-ray or Bust’

When I first reviewed this film, I gave it a “C”.  Hey, I can admit when I’m wrong—and I was with my initial grade of this one.

You see, I’ve always been a wee bit jealous of Tom Cruise.  He and I are roughly the same age, so you can imagine my disgust at the fact that I got ugly and he’s still pretty.  Okay, fine; I got ugly-ER.  But this guy… he was the actor all the girls wanted to see back when I was a teenager.  This was the cool guy “Joel” from RISKY BUSINESS, the handsome athlete in ALL THE RIGHT MOVES, the hero of LEGEND and TOP GUN.  He was handsome, rugged, and got to make out with Rebecca De Mornay, Elisabeth Shue, and Nicole Kidman.

I’d like to say that I got over my jealousy, but, again, I ain’t gettin’ any prettier, so there will always be some bitterness there.  So that initial review was a bit jaded.  I felt as though the movie was nothing but a set of extreme stunts (I kept imaging the cast of TV’s “The Office” yelling “parkour!” and jumping off of furniture) linked by little bits of story.  Upon a second viewing, however, I have to admit that my view was a bit… askew.

Here’s the story: after Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his team fail on a mission, the CIA assigns an agent (Henry Cavill, doing his best “I’m not Superman” imitation) to help track down the plutonium that Hunt and his crew lost.  Somehow, the villain from the last film (Sean Harris, who, unfortunately, is not given much to do here) becomes a pawn in the proceedings, and shenanigans commence. By “shenanigans” I mean “stunts”.  And there are several good ones; a white-knuckled freefall/halo jump, another motorcycle/car/truck chase, a helicopter chase, and a foot chase that borders on excessive. 

But what writer/director Christopher McQuarrie does with the story, the stunts, and the locations is almost ingenious—and here is where the film school part of me gets really excited.  Technically, this movie should be taught in classrooms.  The cinematography by Rob Hardy (ANNIHILATION, EX MACHINA) is at times beautiful, and at others takes you so close to the action that you cannot help but cringe.  There is very little CGI in this film, and very few of the stunts were performed on sound stages or by someone not named “Tom Cruise”.  So the creativity used by McQuarrie, Hardy, and second unit director Wade Eastwood is almost astounding in its execution. Three different types of film were used in the production, and the practicality of each is discussed in the special features—namely in the eleven minute “Light the Fuse”, which offers more technical aspects of filmmaking during that time than some featurettes do in entire releases.  There is also a breakdown of the halo jump, the Paris stunts (which include cars, trucks, and motorcycles), and deleted scenes.  But even with the deleted scenes, you get direct explanations from the filmmakers which delves deeper into the storytelling process.  This care in explaining HOW they told this story, and why they told it the way(s) they did, is not something you get to experience with every disc.

Honestly, the special features declare a love for cinema that goes beyond your typical release.  You can tell how much everyone involved loves their jobs, and how, ultimately, they are all just a bunch of movie geeks like the fans that flock to their films.  So, yeah—Cruise and Co. have impressed me the second go ‘round.  And I’m sure there will be another MISSION film in the future; Mr. Cruise doesn’t seem ready to pass the stunt torch just yet, which he probably shouldn’t.  What he and McQuarrie dream up here is thrilling, even if some of the story feels a bit rehashed (there are some genre troupes you just can’t seem to escape nowadays).  Just don’t expect the next MISSION movie anytime soon, as they are both hard at work on the TOP GUN sequel.  But FALLOUT should be enough to tide you over.

Film Grade: B+
Special Features: A
Blu-ray Necessary: Oh, yes

- T.S. Kummelman

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

‘Blu-ray or Bust’ - INCREDIBLES 2

‘Blu-ray or Bust’

It took ten years for Disney and Pixar to make a sequel to one of their highly-successful films.  Ten years.  That restraint alone should garner them some praise; in today’s climate, Hollywood seems hell-bent on providing endless franchises that teeter on losing whatever momentum was set up eight films ago.

So to pick up on a film with no current momentum at all seems an interesting choice.  Given that writer/director Brad Bird, of THE IRON GIANT and the original INCREDIBLES film, continues where he left off, but makes the film resonate with today’s social and political strife.  He even advises, via the special features, that the time felt right for his superhero family to return.  That may be so, but for a film geared towards the younger set, he seems a tad long winded.

One of my recent gripes targets the length of animated films.  Back in the day (you know, when I was a kid, and the only movies we had were from the firelight in our caves dancing across our cave paintings), your typical animated film clocked in at about eighty-five minutes.  Nowadays?  Between INCREDIBLES 2, RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET, COCO, and CARS 3 (the last four Disney features), the average runtime is one-hundred and twelve minutes.  Not very concise storytelling, and it shows; while I2 does have some redeeming moments, ultimately it is a train on unsteady tracks.

Picking up at an unspecified time following the first film, “supers” have been banned from saving the world—or, at least, from fighting crime.  They make too much of a mess when apprehending the bad guys, and all of the public destruction has become bothersome.  Along comes a rich tycoon and his tech-savvy sister, who hire Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), the matriarch of the Parr family, to be the new poster child of a movement whose sole purpose is to reintroduce supers as a humanitarian benefit.  Which means that Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), aka “Dad”, to look after the three kids.  Playing on the stereotypical idea that dads have no idea what they are doing (I was a single father for some years, and my kids can probably attest to the fact that it is definitely an imperfect learning process), the viewer is presented with two distinct storylines, only one of which is action-packed enough to hold your attention.

It seems that baby Jack-Jack is coming into his superpower, which apparently is every other superpower you could think of.  No spoilers, but the best parts of the movie are any and everything pertaining to the baby.  From his infectious giggle to his battle with a raccoon, the scene-stealer here is the only one that doesn’t speak proper English.  Mr. Bird went out of his way to give 95% of the laughs to, arguably, the most powerful member of the family.  This isn’t a bad thing, other than that when he isn’t on screen, his absence is distracting.  Yes, Elastigirl’s storyline is important, but kids won’t care too much about that, and neither will you.  The unpredictability of Jack is what makes this film fun.

There are several special features included with the disc, but make sure you check out the two animated shorts included.  One is “Auntie Edna”, which is more Jack-Jack, and the wonderful “Bao”, a story about a mother and her…dumpling?  I think it’s a dumpling… 

Up next for the animation studio at Disney is FROZEN 2 and TOY STORY 4.  More sequels, of course.  In fact, the only original project they have forthcoming is a take on the “Jack and the Beanstalk” story, GIGANTIC—and that release date has been pushed back to 2020.  Keep your fingers crossed that that far-off date isn’t so that they can take the extra time to make a cartoon that breaks the two-hour mark…

Film Grade: B-
Special Features: A
Blu-ray Necessary: It is an animated film, so, yes—everything is more vibrant in the format

- T.S. Kummelman

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

‘Blu-ray or Bust’ - CHRISTOPHER ROBIN

‘Blu-ray or Bust’

Disney has had a rather storied past when it comes to “Winnie the Pooh”.  There have been numerous cartoons and films based on the bear’s adventures in the Hundred Acre Woods.  And, Pooh may be one of the most quotable characters the studio has ever brought to life.

So it’s a shame that this update of the denizens of that famous land isn’t more Pooh friendly.  ROBIN follows an adult Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) as he navigates life without his childhood friends.  Of course, it becomes necessary for them to help him save his family (if not his job), and their reintegration into his world is what drives this story.

The problem is that ROBIN wants to yank on your heartstrings, and as often as possible.  If you ever purposely needed a film to manipulate your feelings, this one will do nicely for you.  And it tries early on, and on multiple occasions, to do just that.  Pooh gets his feelings hurt so many times that you wish a heffalump would appear and begin chowing down on Christopher Robin, just to prove that there is justice in this universe.  The film wants to be a story about friendship, and how it never dies.  Yet, what it proves several times is how sometimes one side of that friendship has to work really stinkin’ hard to keep it alive.  Probably not the message director Marc Forster (FINDING NEVERLAND, MONSTERS BALL) wanted to deliver; alas, it is the one thing that works consistently within the writing.  Not a great message for the kiddies, methinks.

And it isn’t that CHRISTOPHER ROBIN is a bad film—it isn’t.  It just isn’t a film worthy of Pooh and his pals.  Gone is the magic that connected the multitude of characters from the earlier films and cartoons.  Also gone is the loving connection you’d feel between Robin and Pooh anytime the boy referred to him as a “silly old bear”.  The line is overused here and doesn’t carry quite the same meaning.  Pooh, at this point, is indeed old, and he and the rest of the gang show it.  Their iterations as real-life characters are done in the muted colors of the illustrations from earlier literary works, which is okay; it makes them appear more realistic, less imaginary from a child’s standpoint and more believable from an adult’s perspective.  Therein lies one of the other problems; these characters helped Christopher Robin navigate his childhood, and while their appearance here has that classical look to them, the Pooh Bear I remember did not have a hairy nose.  As an adult watching this film, I want my old Pooh back.  He doesn’t have to be vibrantly colored, but he sure as hell doesn’t need a hairy beak, either.

Redeeming moments can be found in the cinematography of Matthias Koenigswieser (who hasn’t shot much of note prior to this).  His eye wanders through the Hundred Acre Wood just enough to make it appear naturally magical, and some of the views (although used more than once in some cases) are spectacular.

There are several special features, although many are short and serve more as commercials for a film you’ve already bought.  There isn’t a whole lot of captivating behind-the-scenes stuff here, other than how they brought the characters to life through puppetry (and, yes, CGI).

Technically, you could consider this another entry in Disney’s recent exuberance into the live-action genre; after the success of their re-do’s of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and THE JUNGLE BOOK, and with ALADDIN and THE LION KING on the horizon, one would hope that at some point, they’d get back to the animation that made them a part of millions of childhoods.  And maybe make a film that doesn’t have “dead parent” as a plotline…

Film Grade: C
Special Features: C+
Blu-ray Necessary: Not necessary (due to the lack of heffalumps and woozles)

-- T.S. Kummelman

Thursday, November 29, 2018


“SKumm’s Thoughts”

I hate to admit it, but there came upon me a moment when watching this sequel to 2016’s FANTASTIC BEASTS in which I hoped Johnny Depp would look directly into the camera and break into his Captain Jack Sparrow routine.

Granted, there are a few moments when that slightly rolling voice comes through, as though he’s egging you on a bit.  Like at any moment he could cry out “mun-key!” in fear and a slightly drunken repose.  But he doesn’t.  Which kinda sucked.

CRIMES follows the basic Hollywood sequel setup, in that it adheres to the formula set forth by THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK; secrets are revealed, some questions are answered, and the bad guys have a field day.  Seeing the fugitive wizard Grindelwald (Depp) in action can be quite the nefarious spectacle.  His power is obvious, his intentions are honestly blunt, and his ideology is skewed yet rational in a sympathetic kind of way.  He wants all pure-blood witches and wizards to rule the world, and he nearly has the means to do so.  Those means involve winning Credence (Ezra Miller) over to his side.  Where Grindelwald is stalwart in his resolution, Credence is coming into his own.  He still shies away from human interaction, but his conflicted emotions have evolved into a quest for identity—one which, sadly, is not explored quite enough here.  Neither is that of Nagini (Claudia Kim), who eventually grows up to be a really evil snake.  In fact, there are several characters here that need more fleshing out, and more time to simmer.  You get the distinct impression that there is a longer, more character-friendly film here somewhere.

It is certainly possible that they will all evolve more over time; this is, after all, only the second in a planned five-film story.  But there are a whole lotta people on display here, and it seems an injustice to not let these characters develop more naturally.

My other gripe lies with either J.K. Rowling’s script or Mark Day’s editing; there are jumps in the storyline that are wholly out of place for a film set in the “Wizarding World” universe.  Scenes cut to other characters suddenly further along than you last saw them, which goes against the typical storytelling of these films.  It is especially bothersome when it concerns characters we care about.  Speaking of which, the early standout for me in this film was, once again, Dan Fogler’s Jacob Kowalski.  His humor and presence show an almost uncanny depth, making him the most relatable character in the movie—well, for part of it, anyways.  Eddie Redmayne is just as effective as he was the first time around, and this time he is allowed to better plumb the depths of his social anxieties and self-doubts.  Newt Scamander really is one of the most complex characters writer J.K. Rowling has ever created, and I’m including Severus Snape in that mix (Slytherin forever, beotches!).

And please don’t think that I hated this sequel; on the contrary, it was enjoyable.  Some of the effects are stunning, and the set detail was delightful.  The graveyard was especially effective as a mood setter, although that was also one of the parts which felt a bit rushed.  Phillipe Rousselot’s cinematography is wonderful, in that he sets up some shots that linger in your head well into the next scene.  Some of his work may seem unconventional for a Wizarding World film, but it is a great visual tool in director David Yates’ arsenal.

There are other things which bothered me (and some things about the story that I loved), but to divulge them goes against my “No Spoilers! Rule”.  If you’ve seen the trailers, you know what the film is about.  And no, it isn’t about Jack Sparrow getting the Black Pearl back.  No matter how badly you want that sly wink and a “mun-key!”.

Film Grade: B-

- T.S.Kummelman