Thursday, May 23, 2019

The 'Not-So-Critical' Critic: JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 - PARABELLUM

The 'Not-So-Critical' Critic: 
on JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 - PARABELLUM (2019, 130 minutes, R)

The Quick of It -
It amazes me how Keanu Reeves gets these projects that get so much traction when critics bashed his earlier work.  He continually proves them wrong at the box office, even when he still plays that niche role he has created for himself.

To put this into a sports analogy, imagine a team that has a player that excels in a particular skill.  If a quarterback is an outstanding passer, you keep him safe and slinging the ball.  If you have a point guard who can pass and move the basketball against any team, you let them direct traffic.  The core idea is to put people in situations so they can succeed.  Mr. Reeves has a tenacious spirit, putting his heart into a role.  Even if you only see it on the screen in the most subtlest of ways, it is there.  I cannot imagine the tremendous number of hours he accrued off-screen for this role to make it feel seamless and real.  Well, there may have been a few early-bird blocks, but we can forgive him when half the film is intense action sequences.

Keanu Reeves may have a stoic presence, not exhibiting Hollywood flair or have weeping eyes that deem one Oscar worthy.  But, he has enough acting chops to grab your attention and let you never stray from his journey.  In this stage of his career, the John Wick series is far above the action heroes of old, forging a new path into violence and creativity.  There have been other films that have progressed the filming-style of action movies, like the Bourne series, that is true.  For John Wick, this collection of films has contributed to a fading sub-genre.  Superhero films have overshadowed the yearly lineup for action, pushing the secondary titles deeper into a low-level money grab for the scraps.

CHAPTER 3 continues where 2 left us.  Wick is on the clock as his excommunication by the High Table from the assassin’s guild becomes official.  He must use all his chits to get help, calling in all favors, to survive long enough to find a way out of the $14 million-dollar price tag on his head.  What comes next?  Oh… we know.  And that is the beauty of it. 

Again, at the helm is director Chad Stahelski.  What makes him so special with his limited catalog of movies as a director?  His catalog of movies he worked on, being on the stunt and fight-choreography side.  His command and attention to detail while taking the time to prime the moments before visually inundating you with ferocity, pulling you down to a calming place, and then suffering through each impact of bullet and fist.

They incorporate a new team-up, Halle Berry as bad-ass Sofia.  She gives something to the story but did leave me a little jolted by the insertion.  (Yeah, had to incorporate that word.  Extra points.)  Like many of the introductions, I guess each is an immediate introduction without much transition, but I felt a little cheated with her.  Her story was deeper than most, probably too deep for what time she was given. 

While the returning cast is top-notch star power, we have the opportunity to see the hidden world of international assassins expand.  Add an Adjudicator for the High Table, Asia Kate Dillon (of ‘Billions’ and “Orange is the New Black), who you think doesn’t blink the whole time.  She stares down everyone, regardless of their killing natures.  Also, the sushi chef/ninja Zero, played by Mark Dacascos, from my favorite French film BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF, acts so flippantly, you want to see what he does next. 

The end result is not just an action film but a clinic on mood and setting.  Light and the use of cool colors is phenomenal.  The staging of sequences and incorporating animals into the melees is beyond anything you will expect or wish for.  Make the time to see this on the large screen, worth every penny.  There are more Wicks to come.

Grade: A

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

‘Blu-ray or Bust’ - COLD PURSUIT

‘Blu-ray or Bust’

A few years ago, writer and director Hans Petter Moland offered up a wonderful gem of a film called IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE.

In it, a father, played the amazing Stellan Skarsgard (the nutty professor of THOR and various Marvel films) played a grieving Norwegian father and snowplow driver who sets off on a path of murderous revenge, determined to destroy all those responsible for his son’s death.  Casting Mr. Skarsgard in the role of Nils Dickman was sheer genius; his thoughtful, hilarious performance of a man that has no idea what he is doing when it comes to dealing out death turned a simple revenge story into one of caustic redemption.  There was a deep, underlying morality play working just behind his sorrowful eyes, one which made this working-class man a relatable and sympathetic hero.

And the supporting cast was just as reliable.  Bruno Ganz as a Serbian mob boss, who also loses a son to at the hands of a drug kingpin known as “The Count” is a ruthless and calculated man—the polar opposite of Nils, and a telling contrast.  He has the resources to extract his revenge, and isn’t afraid to use them—unlike the improbable Nils, who has to learn as he goes.

Ultimately, the film works on several distinct levels, partly due to the brilliant script by Kim Fupz Aakeson.  He gives each and every character a reason to be present, and he cares for them—even the reprehensible ones.  Each of these are people, individuals living their lives unapologetically for the most part, and dealing with the consequences of their actions.

Did I mention the comedy aspect?  It serves as a third character, this dark humor which pervades throughout the story.  Much of it comes from Nils learning how to kill, or dispose of bodies.  But for as much of it that comes at the aging plow driver’s expense, there is a hefty amount aimed at the preposterousness of the situations.  A heavy sarcasm guides the proceedings like an all-knowing dungeon master who giggles fiercely at every dark turn.

At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Hey, Shawn—where’s the review for the Liam Neeson flick, you monkeyhole?”  Well, if you want a review of an entirely needless and passionless Hollywood remake BY THE SAME DUDE THAT DIRECTED THE ORIGINAL, FOR THE LOVE OF THE SWEET BABY HEY-ZEUS, I’ll give you one.

The original was a helluva lot better.
Film Grade: D+
Special Features: (No clue.  I’m too busy watching the original now to regale meself with any more Hollywood BS.)
Blu-ray Necessary: The original, sure.  This one?  HELL NAW.


Wednesday, May 15, 2019

‘Blu-ray or Bust’ - ESCAPE ROOM

‘Blu-ray or Bust’
ESCAPE ROOM (2019, PG-13, 99 minutes, COLUMBIA PICTURES)

I miss the horror films of the eighties.  THE THING, HOUSE (the one with William Katt), FRIGHT NIGHT (the one without Colin Farrell), AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON—you know, movies that utilized practical effects over CGI, quite possibly because CGI sucked shark turds back then.

Not to say that there have not been vast improvements in the technology since then.  You wouldn’t have films like THE AVENGERS or BLADE RUNNER 2049 without the abilities of current day computers.  Yet we are talking about horror films.  One of the first to really utilize the technology was AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS, a terribly written sequel to the John Landis classic.  The horrible writing wasn’t the death knell of that poorly received attempt to mentally junk-punch the audience, however: it was the cartoon werewolves that landed the greatest insult.

Thank the Sweet Baby Hey-Zeus that the technological advances have gotten us to the point we are now: no more bad paintings for backgrounds, no more blobby wolves.  Most films rely on CGI nowadays to streamline the onscreen action, and it is typically used quite effectively.  Enter ESCAPE ROOM, a film that harkens back to the practical effects of that bygone era when people actually built sets instead of having the actors stand on and before giant green screens.

The set pieces are the star of this film; all of the acting is fine, much of the script is fine, but it is the rooms that six strangers must escape from or die in that are the true treat here.  At first, the viewer is invited into their immersive world; I found myself looking for clues on the screen just as frantically as the characters were, even though I wasn’t in a life-or-death situation.  The actors are effective enough: Deborah Ann Woll of “True Blood” and “Daredevil” fame is on hand to lend some credibility to the younger actors, as is Tyler Labine—“Dale” from TUCKER AND DALE VS EVIL.

But one of the major issues with what transpires onscreen is that the audience is effectively removed from the action in the final few set pieces.  And the final five minutes of the film is an entirely unnecessary arc which is so bad it is nearly an insult to our intelligence.

So basically, skip the first seven minutes and the last five.  That beginning, too, is a bit clunky.  Another part of the problem is that director Adam Robitel seems to suffer from moments of genuine flair, which is offset by bouts of screaming inadequacy.  It’s like watching a duck chugging an energy drink, and then taking a downer immediately afterwards.  Lots of excited flapping and then a sudden nap, pretty much.  This is the same guy that thought the script for INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY would make a good movie to direct, and I’d rather have one of my testicles removed through my nose hole than suffer through that crap again.

While there may not be a lot of gunfire or explosions, this is kinda necessary in the high-end format.  The set pieces are lovingly detailed, especially the upside-down barroom, which is a great lesson in physics, and makes for a tense scene.  The score by Brian Tyler (CRAZY RICH ASIANS) lends a heavy, dramatic air to the proceedings, and benefits from surround sound.

It isn’t that this movie is terrible—it isn’t.  But it could be so much better, so much more effective, if it stayed away from the typical tropes which plague much of horror cinema today.  Like the unnecessary setup for a sequel, which takes five minutes of the end time and plays out as more of an anti-climax than it does an effective epilogue.  So, yeah—stay for the practical effects, leave for the bookends of banality.

Film Grade: B-
Special Features: C (not enough there, and what is there isn’t all that enlightening)
Blu-ray Necessary: Recommended

--T.S. Kummelman 

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

‘Blu-ray or Bust’ - GLASS

‘Blu-ray or Bust’

I think there comes a certain responsibility as a filmmaker who chooses to write and direct his own series of films to his audience.

Continuity, detail, and respect for their own material and characters seems of paramount importance—to me, at least.  Honestly, what the hell do I know, though?  I am basically just a trumped-up fan of cinema, a geek with a voice, a dork waffle with an outlet.

But whatever M. Night Shamalamadingdong is smoking should be banned.

I am a big fan of UNBREAKABLE and SPLIT, the two films Mr. Shyamalan wrote and directed that are the predecessors to this third entry.  Each of the films, like their titles, focus on one of three characters, insomuch that, if you had to boil each character down to their most basic of descriptions, fits each perfectly.  UNBREAKABLE was the story of David Dunn (Bruce Willis), the sole survivor of a train wreck that discovers he is indeed unbreakable.  SPLIT introduced audiences to a man (the amazing James McAvoy) with multiple—or split—personalities, just as much a villain as Dunn was a hero.

With GLASS, Mr. Shyamalan reintroduces us to “Mr. Glass”, Dunn’s archenemy from the first film.  He is called Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) because he suffers from a rare disorder that makes his bones extremely brittle.  Therein lies his only weakness, although his mind makes up for that big-ass lack of calcium.  His brain is supposedly so much better than everyone else’s, making him a mental force to be reckoned with.  His brand of evil is particular, even though he follows the comic book rules he touts as a lifestyle.  He’s smarter than everyone else, yet he adheres to the predictable coda set forth in the same comics that he collects and sells, or at least did prior to his incarceration in UNBREAKABLE.  Seems kinda dumb, if you ask me.

GLASS does not lack for action; the viewer is treated to a showdown early on between The Beast and Dunn, yet reality intercedes, and they are both apprehended and placed in the same institution as Mr. Glass.  The ensuing game of cat and mouse is entertaining, and one of the film’s most effective scenes is when all three are in the same room together, being treated by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sara Paulson of “American Horror Story” fame).  Staple is an emotionless overseer, a scientist who claims to have the cure for those that think they are super-human.  If comic books and films have taught us anything, it is that if something can go spectacularly wrong, it most certainly will.

Mr. Shyamalan creates visuals that are memorable and, on occasion, downright haunting.  He keeps much of The Beast’s violence off-screen, a trick he has used to great effect throughout his films.  Yet it is a nuance which we have come to expect from him, and here, seems to be the only technique he learned from master storyteller Alfred Hitchcock, the man that perfected that move.  Mr. McAvoy’s performance is just as good as it was in SPLIT, and at times his range shines through.  Yet this is not his film, and, with the title seemingly saying that the focus will be on Mr. Glass, much time is spent on Ms. Paulson’s character.  This makes the narrative choppy, and doesn’t give quite the payoff fans of the previous two films might be expecting.

As usual, no spoilers, but the big showdown at the end is more of a big letdown.  Mr. Shyamalan doesn’t respect certain characters enough to give them a decent enough endgame (yeah, I know), and one particular act feels offensive.  It is almost as if he is introducing one tiny aspect of reality at the end, one which we should accept as a stroke of genius, but feels more like a kick in the naughty bits.

Bad way to end a great trilogy, dude.  Never take your audience out of the game.

Grade: C-
Special Features: C
Blu-ray Necessary: Only if you must, but you wouldn’t be missing out on much with the regular format

- T.S. Kummelman

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

‘Blu-ray or Bust’ - BUMBLEBEE

‘Blu-ray or Bust’

I have enjoyed reviewing the TRANSFORMER movies over the years, mostly due to the fact that they have allowed me to come up with new descriptive terms.

Save for the first one (which I enjoyed), they allowed me to first use the phrases “bucket of monkey vomit”, “as useful as shark nipples”, and “Michael Bay”. The reasons for my dislike of every one of those films (besides the first) was, essentially, that they became too Michael Bay-ish. Yes, he can put together an effective and wonderful action-packed spectacle; ARMAGGEDON and THE ROCK are personal favorites, as is BAD BOYS. Yet at some point, his films became a tad too spectacular, so much so that you have a hard time following the action. Every TRANSFORMERS film seemed determined to out-battle the last, and the crashing metal and exploding machines became redundant and downright careless in execution.

Why on earth would anyone think that an additional entry in the franchise would be necessary? Hasn’t the audience had quite enough? With BUMBLEBEE comes a sudden realization that, holy horse grenades, yes, we did need another TRANSMORMERS film.

Director Travis Knight (KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS), working from a script written by Christina Hodson (of the upcoming genre films BIRDS OF PREY and BATGIRL), makes it so the character of Bumblebee, who launched the first film in the franchise, is possibly the most important of the metallic beasts. Set in 1987, and incorporating music and trends from that era, restarts the series on a simpler note. Gone are the myriad of transforming robots, gone are the battle scenes that were mostly close-up views of shredded aluminum cans being crunched together. Here, you only have to worry about the title character, who has escaped his home planet of Cybertron in an effort to scout out a new home base for his fellow machines, and the two baddies hot on his tail—er, trunk, I suppose.

Young Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld, who was the heart and soul of the Cohen Brother’s remake of TRUE GRIT in 2010) finds Bumblebee in a junk yard; he is a beat up, barely drivable VW bug, but the deception does not last long. The relationship which quickly develops between the two is totally attributable to Ms. Steinfeld’s acting ability; she creates chemistry with a robot that she had to imagine during filming, and her work here is spotless. Equally impressive is the dorky Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr), a boy in love with his neighbor. Lendeborg’s delivery is perfect, and his awkward performance is nearly as impressive as hers.

And then there is John Cena; Mr. Cena, of WWE fame, plays “Agent Burns”, a military man hell-bent on Bumblebee’s destruction. What occasionally comes across as a one-note role is given new life by his layered performance. The Outtakes in the Special Features is more like a John Cena comedy fest; who knew the man was actually tat stinkin’ funny? The twinkle you see in his eyes while in the role of Burns belies the seriousness displayed by his character, and it almost becomes distracting. Here’s the thing, though: he knows he is in a TRANSFORMERS movie, and he is determined to have fun in this particular one—just as soon as he’s done playing the hard-laced guy.

The only drawback to the film is all that heavy CGI. It looks well enough, and the effects are quite seamless. And it isn’t nearly as much animation as you are used to from the other films. But there are one or two instances which harken back to those confusing battles; the entire opening sequence is entirely comprised of CGI, and what looks like a marvelously rendered alien planet quickly becomes overwrought in an action sequence which tries to be fluid but can come across as clunky.

This entry in the franchise is a must have on Blu-ray. While it still carries a bit of the Michael Bay-ish mayhem, it also has a strong, beating heart at its center, one which relies more upon its human characters than it does the CGI ones. And that is what marks this as wholly different from the others. That, and the fully realized character of Bumblebee himself, who has more personality than all the other films combined.

Film Grade: B+
Special Features: A
Blu-ray Necessary: Absolutely

- T.S. Kummelman

Thursday, April 18, 2019

The 'Not-So-Critical' Critic: HELLBOY

The 'Not-So-Critical' Critic: 
on HELLBOY (2019, 120 minutes, R)

The Quick of It -
The hate that filled critics’ blogs towards the new installment of HELLBOY left enough doubt for anyone to feel the need to spend the money on a failed attempt to reboot.  I, typically, dismiss these guys as most don’t give two ‘donkeys’ about the actual film.  They hunt for clicks and turmoil, not offering a fair shake. 

With hope in my heart, I took a seat and prepared for the unknown. 

This relaunch had a new crew and cast to make this work.  Director Neil Marshal (of DOG SOLDIERS and THE DESCENT) took Andrew Cosby’s (of ‘Eureka’ and ‘Haunted’) script and ran with the project.  The initial hype was real.  Everyone wanted this to pull through.  With David Harbour (of ‘Stranger Things’) as Hellboy and Ian McShane (of ‘Deadwood’) as Professor Broom leading the cast in name-power for the primary characters, we have a promising start.  And then we have Milla Jovovich as the lovely baddie.  On the surface, we all saw nothing wrong so far.

Then you had the trailer and costuming of Hellboy.  The trailer was a bit mixed in its message, seemed a flat action story.  There were a lot of moving parts while being simple in what was to happen.  Then, Hellboy appeared more scraggly, similar to the art of Duncan Fegredo.  Not a bad choice.  He wasn’t the Ron Perlman style we had gotten used to, but it worked. 

In the end, after sitting through this two-hour movie, I cannot defend what I saw.  I was bored, was creeping up on the ‘I want to get the heck out of here’ moment, and fighting those yawns near the end.  Yes, there is some grounds for enjoyment for some people.  The creatures and creature-concepts were awesome.  There was no half-stepping here.  The one redeeming quality that I could find.  We also had humor and violence in droves.  But it was not enough to save the tragedy that I experienced.

The script was based on multiple stories - ‘Darkness Calls’, ‘The Wild Hunt’, ‘The Storm and the Fury’, and ‘Hellboy in Mexico’.  That could be the first problem.  The story was choppy and disconnected.  So much to the point, I think the script was fed through a woodchipper to come up with this pile of ‘donkey’ shavings.  Thanks to this, there was no flow.  The placement of humor missed on certain points, feeling out of place, having no connection to the scene or just bad 80’s liners.  There were so many characters introduced and forced into the plot, you start to lose why they are there… and later discover they were not even necessary.

It pains me to say the critics were right.  You might find some redeeming qualities in HELLBOY, but the woodchipper did a number.  Good luck.

Grade: C-

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

‘Blu-ray or Bust’ - THE MULE

‘Blu-ray or Bust’

I grew up with Clint Eastwood. Not, like, he was my pal or anything—I’m not that old, despite what my thirteen faithful readers may think.

But watching any of his films now is almost a transcendent experience for me. I grew up watching FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, WHERE EAGLES DARE, and my all-time favorite of his, THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (and not just because I identified with all three, thank you very much). Mr. Eastwood was The Man With No Name, he was a troubled hero, and he was a stalwart soldier. His characters were imperfect, yet glorious in their victories over the bad guys.

And then he got old. Don’t get me wrong, he’s still glorious when he needs to be. Yet as of late, it has been of a much more subtle variety. While he had some films in his history that didn’t seem to follow the majority of his film path, the vast history of his portrayals seemed to go something like this: cowboys, cops, old men. Yes, I understand that he isn’t as young as he once was, and the selection of characters available to him has dwindled dramatically.

I watch him now, and wish he could still ride a horse or shoot bad guys, but I understand that that isn’t necessarily what Hollywood needs at the moment. So, meet Earl Stone. Earl is an abrasive old man (much like his character in GRAN TORINO) that grows award-winning flowers, a far cry from anything you’d call action. He’s sweet on the ladies and tough on the competition, and he puts family absolutely last in his list of priorities. Through a turn of events which barely explains his motivation, Earl winds up being a mule for a drug cartel. All he does is drive drugs to a hotel, and soon his money problems are a thing of the past. And that past starts to catch up with him in the form of that misbegotten family he shunned for much of his life.

One thing we never get with this film is a moral dilemma; Earl seems to know what he is signing up for, yet doesn’t even stop to consider the ramifications until a dead body is staring him in the face. Mr. Eastwood’s performance is fine; he makes Earl someone we care about even though we probably shouldn’t, but Nick Schnek’s script doesn’t do the character’s motivations any favors. Yes, most of these films about someone swept up in the drug trade all work on the basic premise of money problems motivating the protagonist. But there is always that moral issue, and Earl has his much too late for it to be effective enough.

Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena play DEA agents trying to bust up the cartel’s drug trade in Chicago, and both have a chemistry which belies their new partnership. Their roles are richly written, and it nearly makes Mr. Cooper the Clint Eastwood of this film, albeit the version that could still chase down the bad guys.

There are only two special features included with this release: a ten-minute making-of doc and a Toby Keith music video. And while the doc does give some insight into what it took to film Earl on all of those drug runs (and they use a whole lot of that footage—seriously, they could have shortened the film by ten minutes if it wasn’t doubling as a travelogue for the Midwest), there isn’t nearly enough here to make it stand apart from others.

I sincerely hope that this production does not mark his last performance in front of or behind the camera. Mr. Eastwood is still a masterful storyteller, and he still puts on a helluva performance. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to see him on a horse again. Surely there’s a script out there about an abrasive old cowboy…

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

- T.S. Kummelman