FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY (2019) – Wrestling Movie Fun, Comedic and Inspiring

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Not only is FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY (2019) a lot of fun, not only is it a “feel good” movie with an inspiring story to tell, but it has a lot to say about those who fight for their dreams and lose, and who in turn use their talents to teach others, the message being they haven’t really lost at all as they are the reason others win.

FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY is based on the true story of a family from Norwich, England who lived and breathed wrestling. As Ricky (Nick Frost) and Julia Knight (Lena Heady) tell it, their lives were going nowhere when they met, and as other people find religion, they found wrestling, and they made it a centerpiece of their family.

Their oldest son tried to make it professionally but failed. He couldn’t handle his failure and ended up in prison. The story focuses on their daughter Saraya (Florence Pugh) and their younger son Zak (Jack Lowden) who are primed and ready to try out for the WWE, World Wrestling Entertainment. Saraya is chosen, while Zak is not.

The film then follows Saraya on her trip to the United States, where she trains under the grueling coach Hutch (Vince Vaughn) who works her and the other recruits incredibly hard, so much so that Saraya comes to believe that she won’t make it. During this time, she chooses her wrestling name, Paige. Meanwhile, back in England, Zak struggles with his sister’s success and his own life, as he increasingly views himself as a failure.

Until one day when his older brother is finally released from prison. He tells Zak that he always knew Saraya would be the success that he himself couldn’t be because she had something he didn’t. When Zak asks his brother what that something was, he points to Zak and says: you. And it’s at that moment Zak realizes that all the work he does teaching wrestling to the neighborhood kids means something, and it has just as much value as going pro in wrestling. And as Saraya points out to her brother, “You’re teaching a blind boy how to wrestle. Who does that?” Once Zak comes to understand the value of his true talent, he turns towards helping his sister achieve her own professional dreams.

While FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY is the story of both Knight siblings, its main focus is really on Saraya, aka Paige, as she’s the one member of the family who did succeed as a pro in wrestling. As such, most of the movie falls on the shoulders of Florence Pugh who plays Paige, and Pugh does a great job. She’s known for her work in LADY MACBETH (2016), she was in the Liam Neeson actioner THE COMMUTER (2018), and she had the lead in the AMC mini-series THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL (2018). Here, Pugh does a fine job capturing Paige’s feelings as an outsider, as someone who feels she doesn’t belong, which is what drove her to wrestling in the first place, that it gave her the ability to block out real life troubles while she was active in the ring. It also gave her something to belong to.

Jack Lowden is very good as Zak Knight as well, although the film does tend to focus on him less than Pugh. He plays Zak as a man who is nearly crushed by the failure of his dreams. Indeed, one of the most painful scenes in the movie is when Hutch tells Zak point-blank to give up, that it’s not going to happen for him. And Lowden is just as good later when Zak experiences the light bulb moment that his work with the youth in his neighborhood is his real talent.

Nick Frost , who has co-starred with Simon Pegg in British comedies like THE WORLD’S END (2013), HOT FUZZ (2007), and SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004) is as expected very funny as the lively patriarch of the Knight family. He gets most of the best laugh-out-loud moments in the film, like when he answers the phone and doesn’t believe he’s really talking to Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson on the other line, when in fact he is. But he also enjoys some key dramatic moments as well, like when he takes Paige aside and tells her that it’s okay if she doesn’t want to continue training for the WWE, that he’s not going to force her to do something she doesn’t want to do.

Lena Headey rounds out the main players as Knight matriarch Julia. She works well with Nick Frost, and the two play a couple whose passion for wrestling is plain to see, and as such, it’s easy to understand how their children are so inspired to participate in the sport.

I have to admit. I’ve never been a Vince Vaughn fan,  but he’s really good here as wrestling coach Hutch. Sure, you can argue that you’ve seen this character countless times before, that he’s just another variation of Mickey (Burgess Meredith) from the ROCKY movies, but there’s an added element that makes him stand out, and it’s this added element which Vaughn nails. Hutch’s story ties in to Zak’s, as he too once had his dreams shattered, and he too found that his true talent was in helping and teaching others to achieve theirs. And there’s a key moment near the end, when Hutch gives Paige a quick wink and then walks away. He’s not about sharing in her glory. What drives him is inspiring other to achieve theirs.

Of course, the biggest name attached to FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY is Dwayne Johnson, who does appear as himself in the movie, and while he has a couple of memorable scenes, this really isn’t a Dwayne Johnson movie. It’s an ensemble piece, led by Florence Pugh.

FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY has a first-rate script by writer/director Stephen Merchant. While the main plot comes right out of any ROCKY movie— underdog makes it big— the tone of this film is anything but, as the humor is all very British, and as such, you’ll spend a lot of time laughing throughout the movie, which comes as no surprise. Merchant worked as a writer for both the British and American versions of the TV show THE OFFICE.

Merchant’s also an actor, and he appears here in a memorable supporting role as the father of Zak’s girlfriend. Merchant also starred as Caliban in LOGAN (2017) with Hugh Jackman

Here, the script is lively and comedic, and better yet, it does a fine job tying its themes together, its stories of youth fighting for their dreams, of how to react when you fail, and the value of teaching others, and how that’s also something that not a lot of people can do, and if you have this gift, use it.

Merchant also succeeds as a director here. FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY wastes no time getting into the heart of its story, as within the first few minutes of the film the audience has already joined Zak and Paige on their quest to become pro-wrestlers. The pace remains brisk throughout, and the film does a comprehensive job telling the story of the Knight family, people who at the end of the day you are glad you met and spent a couple of hours with.

The messages that come out of this film are good ones as they have less to do with competition and more to do with how to be a winner, as it’s not about stomping on those around you to reach the top but lifting up those around you to reach the top together. People do not succeed alone. You need others to help you, and this film is both about those who give help and those who receive it, and it shows how both groups are intertwined. People who receive help give it back, and vice versa. No one gets without giving.

I really enjoyed FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY. This one’s not getting a lot of hype, but it’s definitely a movie worth checking out at the theater.

FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY fights the good fight, and its message on the value of teaching and inspiring others to achieve their dreams is a welcomed one in this day and age which all too often glorifies a winning-at-the-expense-of others mentality.

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THE PRODIGY (2019) – Passable Horror Movie Not Overly Smart

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THE PRODIGY (2019) is a horror movie that has its moments, times when it delivers some decent thrills and chills, but sadly for horror fans it’s ultimately done in by a script that suffers from a serious case of the stupids.

THE PRODIGY opens in chilling enough fashion as a young girl escapes from a serial killer named Edward Scarka (Paul Fauteux). As the police gun Scarka down, the action switches to proud parents Sarah (Taylor Schilling) and John (Peter Mooney) welcoming their new son into the world, born at the exact moment of Scarka’s death.

It doesn’t take long for Sarah and John to realize that their son is special, a genius, a prodigy, and they enroll him into a special school at a young age. Time passes and the story settles on young Miles (Jackson Robert Scott) at the age of eight. It’s at this time that Sarah and John begin to notice troubling changes in Miles. It starts one night when he’s with his babysitter, and in a creepy game of hide and seek, he leads her barefoot down a set of dark basement stairs, and if you’ve seen A QUIET PLACE (2018) you know you shouldn’t walk barefoot down a set of sketchy stairs. Yup, a similar fate awaits the babysitter here, in a scene that is blatantly derivative from A QUIET PLACE. Of course, Miles blacks out and says he remembers none of what happened.

More weird things ensue, including a grisly end to the family dog. Miles’ doctor recommends that Sarah bring him to see a specialist in reincarnation. Jeesh! A guy who specializes in reincarnation? Who knew!

Anyway, this specialist, Arthur Jacobson (Colm Feore) is convinced that Miles’ body is being invaded by another human soul. He tells Sarah that he intends to hypnotize Miles, speak to this soul, find out what it wants, and then help it, because in past cases, as soon as the human soul got what it came back for, the human host became free. Blah, blah, blah.

Of course, there are some complications here. One, the soul inside Miles belongs to a serial killer. You can bet that whatever it is he wants is not very pleasant. And two, he’s a pretty smart serial killer, and he turns the tables on Mr. Jacobson, making him flee with his tail between his legs, a better fate than he gave the family dog.

Eventually, things get so bad that Sarah and John decide Miles should live in an institution, but John stupidly tells Miles about this decision before they do it, and faster than you can say THE OMEN John is fighting for his life. Finally, Sarah decides to take an extreme measure to help her son, which proves to be the most ridiculous plot point of the entire movie.

In terms of scares, THE PRODIGY isn’t bad. Director Nicholas McCarthy sets up his share of creepy scenes which for the most part work. There were a couple of times where I actually jumped, which doesn’t happen very often, and some scenes score very high on the creep-out meter, like when Miles asks to sleep in the same bed with his mom, and we see his tiny hand clasp her shoulder, and she squirms. You can almost see her skin crawl at his touch. Another plus is we’re not subjected to long drawn out scenes of people walking through dark corridors where nothing happens. The pace is tight throughout.

On the other hand, some of the scenes are derivative of other horror movies, like the aforementioned A QUIET PLACE. The ending also borrows heavily— too heavily— from THE OMEN (1976).

The best thing I can say about the screenplay by Jeff Buhler is that I liked the fact that this wasn’t a demonic possession story but a human possession story, which was a fresh take. It wasn’t any more believable, but it was different. I can’t say I bought into the whole reincarnation angle, though, and the script didn’t really offer any answers other than to say that’s what happened. We never learn how Scarka’s soul enters Miles’ body. It just does.

The worst thing about the screenplay is that sadly for a movie that has some good scares it’s not all that smart. Let’s start with the parents. Now, there’s a scene midway through where John and Sarah are on their date night, drinking beer in their car, which is a stupid thing to do, but that’s not what I’m talking about. In this scene, they reminisce about the days before they were parents when they were young and had fun.  They seem like real people here. I can’t say the same holds true later on.

Their reactions to their son Miles seem a bit off throughout. Sarah’s behavior is oftentimes inconsistent. At times, she’s worried about her son, even afraid of him, but at others she’s fiercely protective of him, almost in denial of his issues. You expect her at some point to just up and realize her son is dangerous. It takes her far too long to make this realization.

John could have been a really interesting character. He had an abusive father, and once Miles learns this, he uses the information to get inside John’s head, trying to goad John into hurting him in order to use his actions against him. The few times this issue comes up are very interesting, but the screenplay doesn’t take full advantage.

This story would have been so much better had it worked harder at being realistic. I wanted to see John and Sarah take Miles to see as many experts as possible. I wanted to see the school’s reaction to Miles attacking another student. I wanted somebody to call the police!

The ending also didn’t really work for me. First, Sarah makes an extreme decision to save her son, which just didn’t ring true, and then the film goes right into OMEN territory for its finale, which was far too predictable.

Jeff Buhler also wrote the screenplay to THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN (2008), in which he adapted a Clive Barker short story. That movie, which starred Bradley Cooper, was a much more ambitious one than THE PRODIGY.

Taylor Schilling, from Netflix’ ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK (2013-2019) is decent enough as Sarah, although she’s playing a character who I ultimately didn’t like all that much. Likewise, Peter Mooney is fine as daddy John.

Jackson Robert Scott gives his fellow cast plenty of evil eye stares as the possessed Miles, but compared to other evil children in the movies he’s rather tame. Colm Feore is adequate as the ineffective reincarnation specialist Arthur Jacobson, and while Paul Fauteux looks plenty scary as serial killer Edward Scarka, he doesn’t really do much of anything.

THE PRODIGY is a passable horror movie. It provides a few scares here and there, tells a somewhat interesting story, but presents characters who don’t always seem that real and who make decisions that really can’t be described as anything other than stupid.

Not exactly prodigy material.

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ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL (2019) – Tale of Teen Cyborg Lifted By Impressive Effects

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I have to admit. I wasn’t overly excited about seeing ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL (2019), even with such heavy hitters as James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez on board.

Its plot about a teenage female cyborg trying to find her identity and purpose in life didn’t exactly entice me. I mean, there have been a lot of movies that have covered similar ground, most of them starring Scarlet Johansson!  Seriously, Johansson could have her own boxed set of these films!  From GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017)— the only one in which she actually played a cyborg— to LUCY (2014) — synthetically enhanced human, to HER (2013)— artificial intelligent entity,  to UNDER THE SKIN (2013) — alien— in each of these films she’s played an enigmatic character searching for answers about her identity.

And there have been plenty of these without Johansson.

Yet, guess what? ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL was better than I expected, so much so that I really enjoyed it.

ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL is based on a series of manga books by Yukito Kishiro. It takes place in the future, in a world once ravaged by war. Its cities are inhabited by humans, robots, and cyborgs. As the film opens, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers the discarded head and shoulders of a cyborg in a scrap heap. Ido makes his living attaching robotic limbs to people who need them, and he uses his skills to attach the cyborg’s upper body to a main frame body he had built years earlier for his daughter who was killed before he had a chance to give her the new body.

The cyborg awakes, a wide-eyed 14 year-old girl eager to learn about both life now and who she once was, and Ido promptly names her Alita, after his deceased daughter. While Ido tries to shield Alita (Rosa Salazar) from life’s dangers, it’s not so easy as she is a teenager who is intent on carving her own path. She befriends a group of teens, learns about the most popular sport in her day, “motorball,” and once she discovers she possesses the skills of a warrior, joins the group of “Hunter-Warriors” to help combat the seedier side of life, as there are murderers on the loose and people who harvest body parts for the black market.

Alita also learns more about her past, as she finds out just who she is and why it is she possesses superior fighting skills and strength.

Speaking of strength, as much as I enjoyed ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL, the strength of this movie is not its story. Very little of what happens in ALITA is all that original, and the film offers little or no insight into the topic of cyborgs and artificial intelligence.

What drives ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL is its special effects and its performances, especially Rosa Salazar’s lead performance as Alita.

As you would expect in a movie produced by James Cameron and directed by Robert Rodriguez, the special effects are second to none. The film is visually stunning throughout.

Without doubt, the most impressive effect is Alita herself. A combination of motion capture, CGI, and live performance by Rosa Salazar brings Alita to life. Visually, her look is flawless. She looks exceedingly real. But Alita is more than that, thanks to Salazar’s performance. Salazar captures personality, nuances, and emotions, and she gives Alita spunk, vivacity, and humanity. Salazar’s performance is up there with Andy Serkis’ work as Gollum in the LORD OF THE RINGS movies and Caesar in the PLANET OF THE APES movies.

Salazar has starred in AMERICAN HORROR STORY (2011), the MAZE RUNNER movies, and most recently in Netflix’ BIRD BOX (2018) along side Sandra Bullock. She’s supported here in ALITA by a fine cast of veterans.

Christoph Waltz does his thing as Dr. Ido. I like Waltz, but truthfully, it’s been a while since he’s taken on a role that has impressed me. Both Jennifer Connolly and Mahershala Ali are on hand as villains here, although neither one really gets to show off their full potential.

And this is certainly a weakness in the film. It doesn’t have a decent villain.

Keean Johnson is enjoyable as Hugo, the young man who befriends Alita and eventually becomes her boyfriend.

James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis, and Robert Rodriguez wrote the screenplay, again based on the manga series by Yukito Kishiro. In creating the character Alita, the script is very successful, but as for the rest, meh. Its story simply did not wow me.

Its main plot is average at best. Alita’s past isn’t hard to figure out, and what she is fighting for, other than to protect her friends and family, isn’t all that grand or exciting. The villain is never clearly defined, and as a result it’s never clear why this shadowy figure wants to destroy Alita.

For most of the movie, Alita was a fascinating enough character to overcome these flaws in the plot, but towards the end, the story starts to run out of gas, and the pace drags.

This is James Cameron’s first script since AVATAR (2009).  Remember that movie? That remains such an odd story. I loved AVATAR when it came out. Sequels were announced, and here we are ten years later and the sequels still haven’t happened. It seems they’ve been in pre-production forever. Supposedly, AVATAR 2 is set for release in 2020.  And that’s the reason Cameron didn’t direct ALITA. He’s been too busy with the AVATAR movies.

Laeta Kalogridis also wrote the screenplay for SHUTTER ISLAND (2010) and TERMINATOR GENISYS (2015).  I know a lot of people hated GENISYS but I really liked that one.

I’ve been a fan of Robert Rodriguez since his fun vampire flick FROM DUSK TO DAWN (1996) which starred George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino. I’ve also really enjoyed his SIN CITY films and MACHETE movies. And he also made the SPY KIDS movies.

Rodriguez always brings an energy and oomph to his movies, and his work here with ALITA is no exception. From the dark look of the film, to its exciting action sequences, like the motorball race, Rodriguez’ signature style is on full display throughout.

I liked ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL a lot, mostly because of its phenomenal technological achievement in creating such a life-like character in Alita. And a huge part of this success is the human element, the motion-capture performance by Rosa Salazar. The combination of acting and special effects create a wonderfully impressive and memorable character.

Alita is worth the price of admission alone, even if her story isn’t.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: KING KONG ESCAPES (1967)

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This IN THE SPOOKIGHT column is a reprint from February 2007:

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Think of Japan’s Toho productions, and the first name that comes to mind is Godzilla, and rightly so, since Toho produced more than 25 movies starring everyone’s favorite giant mutated dinosaur.

However, Toho also made a couple of King Kong movies in the 1960s.  They made some Frankenstein films as well, but we won’t go there today.  Their second (and last) Kong film was KING KONG ESCAPES (1967), generally considered to be one of the worst Kong movies ever made, right up there  with KING KONG LIVES (1986).

My vote for the worst goes to KING KONG LIVES, and that’s because I have a soft spot in my heart for KING KONG ESCAPES.  Maybe it’s because KING KONG ESCAPES was the first Kong movie I ever saw. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s not that bad after all.

KING KONG ESCAPES borrows heavily from the 1960s James Bond craze.  There’s a supervillain, the evil Dr. Who, beautiful women, and a dashing hero, played by Rhodes Reason doing his best to impersonate Sean Connery.  What passes as a plot has Dr. Who building a robot Kong to dig up the precious “element X” which of course, once he has, he’ll be able to use to rule the world! (cue crazed evil laugh). When the robot Kong fails, Who captures the real Kong to do the work.  Of course, Kong isn’t interested.  He’s too busy falling in love with the young blonde lead in the movie, Susan, played by Linda Miller.

Unlike Fay Wray in the original, there’s no screaming here. Linda Miller’s character hardly seems frightened at all by Kong’s presence, and converses with him as if talking to her pet dog.  Better yet, Kong listens and understands everything she says!  Gone are the days when Kong tossed women who weren’t Fay Wray from New York buildings.  In KING KONG ESCAPES, Kong is clearly a hero and a gentleman— or is it a gentle-ape?

Still, he packs a punch when he needs to.  Japanese monster movies are famous for their giant monster battles, and on that front, KING KONG ESCAPES doesn’t disappoint.  Kong fights a dinosaur, a sea monster, and in a “colossal struggle of monster vs. robot” as the film’s original movie posters boasted, he takes on his duplicate, the giant Robot Kong, in an epic climactic battle, which is actually quite well done.

The special effects really aren’t that bad.  They’re on par with other Japanese monster movies of the decade, maybe even a bit better.  Kong looks silly, but his appearance is several notches above his previous Toho stint, in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1963), where he looked sort of ragged, as if he’d been pummeled a few times by co-star Godzilla before the cameras rolled.   And the Robot Kong is pretty cool looking.

KING KONG ESCAPES was directed by Ishiro Honda, who directed many of Toho’s better films, including the original GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS! in 1954.  The English version screenplay by William J. Keenan is extremely silly, with awful dialogue, but it doesn’t really matter.  What matters is Kong, and he gets plenty of screen time.

KING KONG ESCAPES doesn’t come close to either the original KING KONG (1933), or Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake.  It is not a great movie nor does it pretend to be.  The inept 1976 KING KONG with Jessica Lange, if you remember, compared itself to JAWS.

However, it is fun and entertaining, and in the world of monster movies, that’s often enough.  At the end of the day, Kong is still king, still roaring, still on top, even after KING KONG ESCAPES.

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COLD PURSUIT (2019) – Liam Neeson Actioner First Bad Movie of 2019

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The big story regarding COLD PURSUIT (2019), the latest action movie starring Liam Neeson, comes from real life, where recently Neeson made controversial comments that some have deemed racially offensive, and there’s no doubt, what he said is indeed racially offensive.

But it was an odd thing to say, considering he spoke of thoughts he once had, thoughts that never turned into actions, and so at the end of the day, Neeson didn’t commit the racially charged crime he thought about doing, but even so, why talk about something you once only thought about?  To me, this was an absolutely stupid thing for Neeson to say.  What was he thinking?

Anyway, since no crime was committed or accusation of a crime made, the biggest thing I saw Neeson guilty of was putting his foot in his mouth. And so as a fan, I still went to the theater to see COLD PURSUIT.

And the reason I absolutely did not like this movie has nothing to do with all the real life drama mentioned above.

In short, of all the action movies Neeson has made starting with TAKEN (2008) this might be the worst.

The story is simple and sounds much better than it actually is.  Nels Coxman (Liam Neeson) is a humble snow plow driver who quietly and faithfully plows the snowy roads of a ski resort community just outside Denver, Colorado. He’s so appreciated that at the beginning of the movie he is awarded the town’s “Citizen of the Year” award. Nels lives a modest, happy life with his wife Grace (Laura Dern).

All is good until their adult son is murdered by a powerful drug lord who lives in Denver, which is a big no-no, because if there’s one thing every movie fan knows, you don’t mess with the relative of a character played by Liam Neeson. So, yes, the rest of the movie is about Nels seeking vengeance for his son’s murder and taking on the powerful drug lord and his henchmen.  As I said, this one sounds better than it is.

The biggest problem with COLD PURSUIT is its script by Frank Baldwin, based on the screenplay by Kim Fupz Aakeson to the 2014 Danish film IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE. Rather than being a straightforward action thriller, COLD PURSUIT tries to be a dark comedy but fails miserably.

The film starts off well. I enjoyed its set-up and getting to know Nels and his wife Grace. And since I enjoy Liam Neeson and Laura Dern, I was looking forward to seeing these two in this movie, but that’s not how things unfold, as Dern’s character pretty much disappears from the story.

Plus, with Nels being a snow plow driver and a hunter, you’d think that he’d use these skills in getting back at the people who killed his son, but the film’s idea of his skill set is driving a snow plow and using a gun. Not exactly all that specific.

Strangely when the film should have gotten better, when Nels sets his sights on revenge, it gets worse. The biggest culprit is its misplaced sense of humor. The gimmick in this film is to place each deceased character’s name on the screen after their death, and the hope here seems to be that if the filmmakers do it enough (there are a lot of deaths in this movie) it will become funny. Nope. It wasn’t funny the first time, and it’s not funny later.

Now, I have no problem with a dark comedy, especially one about murder, but this one doesn’t work. The characters, including Nels, are all so superficial I didn’t care about any of them. And as the story goes along, Nels actually takes a back seat to rival drug gangs who are trying to wipe each other out. The result of this mess is a film that kinda glorifies murder. People are killed left and right and then the film tries to have fun with their deaths. If you’re going to take this approach, you either have to be really funny or at least have characters fleshed out enough that you feel something when they die. This film does neither.

Liam Neeson is okay as Nels Coxman, but his performance here is nothing we haven’t seen him do before, and frankly, he’s done it much better before. Also, Nels is a cold fish who displays about as much emotion avenging his son’s death as a man standing in the middle of a frozen lake ice fishing.

Laura Dern’s talents are completely wasted in a throwaway role as Nels’ wife Grace. Midway through the film she leaves Nels and that’s it for Dern. She leaves him a note, and it’s a blank piece of paper, which pretty much sums up the emotional impact of this movie.

The main villain “Viking”— and yes, all the bad buys here have nicknames, a la TOP GUN (1986), and in fact, one of the names comes right from that movie— as played by Tom Bateman is one of the most annoying bad guys I’ve seen in a movie in a while. Viking and the rest of his henchmen are about as believable as cartoon caricatures.

Two of the more notable performances belong to John Doman and Emmy Rossum who play two members of local law enforcement, but their storyline goes nowhere, and so they barely make an impact.

There’s also a completely ridiculous subplot involving Viking’s young son, which goes beyond ludicrous once Nels abducts the boy and the two become fast friends. Huh? As I’ve been saying, this one’s pretty bad.

COLD PURSUIT was directed by Hans Petter Moland, and things are so bad here that not even the beautiful snowy mountains of Colorado can save this one. It’s  all very scenic, but the film doesn’t really use its frigid landscape to tell its story.

Plus I really wanted to know more about Neeson’s character. I wanted to know why he felt he could take on drug mobsters and succeed. The film never really gets inside Nels’ head. In fact, for large chunks of the movie, Nels disappears, and the film focuses on the various drug henchmen with all their nicknames.

Ho hum.

At the end of the day, COLD PURSUIT is a cold and rather ugly film. The death count is high, yet none of the demises have any impact, with the possible exception of the very last one, which comes a little too late in the game.

In the interest of full disclosure, the audience I saw this one with, albeit a sparse one, seemed to like the movie more than I did. They chuckled on occasion. I did not.

For me, this one’s an easy call. COLD PURSUIT is the first clinker for 2019.  I suggest giving it the cold shoulder.

—END—

ESCAPE ROOM (2019) – Puzzle Thriller Better Than Expected

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Deborah Ann Woll feels the heat in ESCAPE ROOM (2019).

 

I wasn’t expecting much from ESCAPE ROOM (2019), the new “solve the puzzle or you die” thriller that clearly has eyes on becoming a franchise. Critics haven’t been kind to it, and word of mouth has been mute.

But in spite of a boneheaded opening and very contrived ending, ESCAPE ROOM was easily better than I expected.

ESCAPE ROOM opens with a supposed harrowing sequence of a young man Ben Miller (Logan Miller) desperately seeking clues inside a room that is quickly closing in on him, and he’s in danger of being crushed to death unless he can find whatever it is he’s looking for. Since we know absolutely nothing about this character, this opening sequence is just okay and is hardly an exciting way to open the movie.

The action jumps backwards several days, and we meet a group of characters who all receive a strange cube for various reasons inviting them to take part in an escape room puzzle game that will put them in a room with seemingly no escape. If they can figure their way out, they win $10,000.

There’s main character Zoey Davis (Taylor Russell) an extremely introverted college student whose professor advises her to take more risks in life, and to start by doing something that is out of her comfort zone over the Thanksgiving break. We also meet Ben Miller, a young man who’s sort of a loser and is struggling even to keep his grocery store job. Of course, we met Miller in the opening sequence, giving away any suspense as to his fate since we know he’ll survive long enough to reach the collapsing room, which is why I called the opening sequence boneheaded.

There’s also Jason Walker  (Jay Ellis), a hotshot stockbroker who always plays to win, Amanda Harper (Deborah Ann Woll), an Iraqi war veteran with a traumatic past, Mike Nolan (Tyler Labine) a down to earth truck driver, and Danny Khan (Nik Dodani) a nerdy gamer who’s played these escape room games before.

At first, they’re all pretty excited to play, except for Amanda who seems to sense something is wrong from the outset, and something is wrong, because it doesn’t take these folks long to realize that it isn’t a game but is real. If they don’t escape from each room, they die, and once they start being killed, the intensity ratchets up.

The main reason ESCAPE ROOM works as well as it does is its cast, which creates amiable characters who in spite of their flaws are folks you easily feel comfortable rooting for.

Taylor Russell is excellent in the lead role of Zoey Davis. She’s convincing as an introvert who later on must channel her energies to survive and help her new friends to do the same. Russell was also memorable as Judy Robinson in the Netflix reboot of LOST IN SPACE (2018-2019). She is a young actress to keep your eye on.

Logan Miller is very good as socially challenged Ben Miller, and his performance keeps the audience from ever really disliking a character who could have been very annoying. Miller has also appeared on TV’s THE WALKING DEAD.

Jay Ellis is sufficiently cold and driven as winner-take-all stock broker Jason Walker, and Deborah Ann Woll adds a lot of depth to her Iraq-war veteran character Amanda Harper. I’m a big fan of Woll’s work on the Netflix Marvel shows DAREDEVIL (2015-18), THE PUNISHER (2017-2019) and THE DEFENDERS (2017) where she has the recurring role of Karen Page. In fact, the main reason I wanted to see ESCAPE ROOM was because of Deborah Ann Woll.

Tyler Labine does a nice job as Mike Nolan, while Nik Dodani plays the one character Danny Khan who’s sadly reduced to being a cliché.

Most of the escape rooms in the film are pretty creative, and the sequences where the characters need to escape or die are generally exciting, although they never approach seat-squirming levels. It’s all pretty neat and safe, but it’s not dull, and with these actors in the roles I really did care for them and wanted to see them survive.

The screenplay by Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik works for the most part. Its strength is it creates likable characters and gives them realistic dialogue. It wisely avoids giving away answers— the biggest question being who is doing this and why?— until the end, and that’s where things dip a bit.

The idea of characters having to escape a series of deadly rooms works best in the abstract. It all makes for thrilling cinema until the moment arrives when it’s time for some answers. Who is doing this? Why? How? And these answers are far more difficult to come up with while keeping the story realistic. I can’t say the writers really succeeded here.

And the set up for a sequel is by far the most contrived part of the movie and the least believable. It’s also the weakest part of the film.

But before this I thought director Adam Robitel did a nice job keeping things suspenseful. I certainly enjoyed ESCAPE ROOM more than I did Robitel’s previous directorial effort, the dreadful INSIDIOUS:THE LAST KEY (2018).

The story itself here is secondary to the plight of the characters trying to escape the rooms, and that’s the best part of this enjoyable thriller. For most of the film, you don’t know why this is happening, but you also don’t really care. The characters are fleshed out enough so that you care about them.

And sometimes for a movie to work, that’s all you need.

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GREEN BOOK (2018) – Oscar Contender Worth A Trip to the Theater

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Green-Book

It took a while for GREEN BOOK (2018) to make it to the theaters in my neck of the woods, and so I was only able to see it recently.

This Oscar contender, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Original Screenplay is both worthy of these nominations and a trip to the theater. Had I seen this movie before I had comprised my List of Top 10 movies for 2018, it most certainly would have made the cut.

GREEN BOOK (2018), based on a true story, takes place in 1962 and chronicles the unlikely friendship between an eccentric African-American classical pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and a rough and tough Italian bouncer from Brooklyn, Tony LIp (Viggo Mortensen) who are brought together when Shirley hires Tony to be his personal driver on a concert tour which will take him into the Deep South.

In terms of story construct, the one told in GREEN BOOK is one you’ve seen many times before. Yes, it’s a “buddy story,” that plot where two very different characters spend time together, especially on the road, and eventually they form an unlikely friendship.  It’s been done a million times, from classics back in the day like MIDNIGHT RUN (1988) and PLANES, TRAINS, AND AUTOMOBILES (1987) to more recent fare like DUE DATE (2010) and THE HEAT (2013).

But what makes GREEN BOOK different and a cut above the standard “buddy movie” is its dueling themes of racism and racial acceptance.

Shirley’s concert tour is bringing him to the Deep South, as far as Mississippi, not a safe place for a black man in 1962. And that’s where the titular “Green Book” comes in, as it refers to The Negro Motorist Green Book, a publication which listed places which were safe for blacks to visit. Hence, on the road in the south, Shirley and Tony stay at separate hotels, as Shirley has to stay at hotels which accept Negroes, and these are usually poor decrepit places.

And when Shirley is performing inside the elegant establishments of the wealthy white audiences, who give him rousing applause, he is not allowed to use the bathroom inside these places, nor can he dine there.

Tony Lip, while not from the south, initially holds views that are just as racist. He and his fellow Bronx Italians use racial slurs when speaking of blacks, and when his wife hires two black repairmen, and Tony observes  her giving them something to drink after they’ve finished their job, he takes the empty glasses they drank from and tosses them into the trash.

Yet, when asked by Shirley if he would have trouble working for a black man, Tony says no, and since Tony is a man of his word, it turns out to be true, and as the story goes along, and he observes the way Shirley is treated, he becomes more and more protective of his employer.

The story also takes things a step further. Don Shirley is a man alone. He’s wealthy and educated, and he doesn’t identify with what he sees as his fellow black brethren. He’s more similar in class to the wealthy whites he plays music for, but he certainly doesn’t identify with them.  And then there’s his sexual orientation. By all accounts, Shirley is alone and he’s miserable, and in one of the movie’s best scenes, he breaks down and laments to Tony that he hasn’t been able to find any community that wants him in it.

The script, nominated for an Oscar, by Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, and Peter Farrelly does a masterful job at showing not only the racism Don Shirley faced but also the pain he felt at being so isolated from seemingly all walks of life. It also makes Tony Lip the face of white acceptance. At first, Tony may have suppressed any racist feelings just so he could take the job, but later, he truly comes to like and accept Shirley as a person, and his words and actions back that up.

The script also gives Tony the best moments in the film, especially the laugh out loud ones. Indeed, why this movie is also listed as a comedy has to do entirely with Tony. He’s got the best lines in the film, such as when he tries to quote JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you—” speech, but completely botches it and finishes with “Ask what you do for yourself,” and he has the funniest scenes, like when he introduces Shirley to Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The best part of the script is that none of it comes off as superficial or preachy. It makes its points on race simply by allowing its story to unfold. Likewise, the bond between Shirley and Tony is not forced or phony. It’s convincing and natural. The whole story works.

As I said, Mahershala Ali has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Dr. Don Shirley, and it’s certainly a powerful performance.

However, GREEN BOOK belongs more to Viggo Mortensen and his portrayal of Tony Lip. Tony is the larger role, and the story mainly focuses on his reaction to racism. In terms of acting, it’s one of the best performances I’ve seen Mortensen give. He plays the Bronx bouncer so effortlessly. And like Ali, Mortensen has also been nominated, for Best Actor.

GREEN BOOK has also been nominated for Best Picture, although it’s not expected to win. Of its four major nominations, according to the experts, Mahershala Ali has the best chance of winning Best Supporting Actor.

GREEN BOOK was directed by Peter Farrelly, of Farrelly Brothers fame. He successfully captures the 1962 setting. There’s a nice contrast of colors, between the bright and opulent upper class white southern establishments and the dark and dreary poverty-laden black establishments.

And one of my favorite scenes brings both worlds together, when Shirley takes Tony into a black friendly restaurant, and Shirley is invited to play piano and ends up jamming with the jazz musicians there. It’s one of the liveliest scenes in the movie, and it allows Shirley for the first time to feel some camaraderie with a culture he had thus far felt alienated from.

I really enjoyed GREEN BOOK. It has a lot to say about racism, using the south in 1962 as its canvas, and it makes its point while not always being heavy-handed. In fact, its tone is quite the opposite. For most of the movie, thanks to Viggo Mortensen’s performance as Tony Lip, you’ll be laughing. Tony is a likeable character who may not be as skilled and as polished as Dr. Don Shirley, but his heart is in the right place, as is his head. He befriends Shirley not only because he likes him but also because deep down he knows that the color of Shirley’s skin has no bearing on what kind of person he is.

GREEN BOOK is a thoroughly satisfying movie that speaks on racism and entertains at the same time. It’s not to be missed.

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