Thursday, October 20, 2016

JACK REACHER Is Back In A Standard Issue Action Thriller Sequel

Opening today at a multiplex near you:


(Dir. Edward Zwick, 2016)

The first movie in the budding Jack Reacher franchise, 2012’s JACK REACHER, was a standard issue action thriller, and this is its standard issue action thriller sequel.

Tom Cruise, who also co-produced, returns as the army trained indestructible badass title character, in this adaptation of the eighteenth entry in Lee Child’s Reacher series (the first film was based on the ninth novel – don’t ask me why they are doing them out of order) with writer/director Edward Zwick replacing Christopher McQuarrie at the helm.

After an opening scene that, apart from a few crucial beats, has been heavily spoiled in the film’s trailer and TV spots, involving Reacher turning the table on a couple of corrupt cops in a diner, we learn that our stoic, rarely smiling hero is still doing his drifter thing off the grid. 

The guy has stricken up a bit of a long-distance relationship over the phone with a Major Susan Turner (Colbie Smulders, still best known as Robin from How I Met Your Mother despite her more recent work in Marvel movies), who has taken over his post in the military police force.

Despite that they’ve not met in person, Reacher and Turner set a dinner date for the next time he’s in the D.C. area, but when he gets there he finds out that she’s been arrested for espionage, after two of her sergeants were killed in Afghanistan under suspicious circumstances. Our hero senses she’s been framed and seeks out her defense attorney (Tony Beard), who tells him that one of the reasons that Turner has expressly forbidden Reacher from getting involved, is that he might be a deadbeat dad.

So the mystery of whether or not Danika Yarosh is Reacher’s 15-year old daughter Samantha is intertwined with the mystery of who’s behind the setup that comes to involved Reacher himself getting framed for the murder of Turner’s lawyer. So Reacher breaks Turner out of military jail, they find Samantha, and the threesome are on the run, mostly from Patrick Heusinger as an darkly dressed assassin only credited as “The Hunter.”

Reacher and The Hunter tangle in brutally violent fight scenes, there’s a deafening amount of gunfire in the shoot ‘em ups, and, of course, as in any Cruise action flick, there’s a lot of on foot chases (check out this supercut of “Every Tom Cruise Run Ever” which was recently added to YouTube – it goes on for nearly 19 minutes).

I’m unsure of what the title, NEVER GO BACK, means. Maybe it’s supposed to be taken in a Thomas Wolfe “you can’t go home again” way, like how Reacher returns to his old army base and has to keep telling everyone who salutes him as a major, that he’s an “ex-major.” But that doesn’t really seem to fit as it seemed like he was only visiting the place to get a date. Whatever the case, I bet it’s something that’s conveyed better in the book.

As with just about every sequel released this year, it’s a case of diminishing returns. The first one was no classic, but it was edgier and had Werner Herzog as the villain – Heusinger’s Hunter puts forth some effective evilness, but sure can’t top that.

Many times I felt like I was watching a TV show, which makes sense as director/co-writer Zwick has a lot of small screen experience, with how the narrative slickly moving from set piece to set piece with perfect places for commercial breaks. Seems like the fair to middling movie franchise would make for a much better Showtime series.

The plot points surrounding the conspiracy and cover-up involving the selling of US arms on the black market, really didn’t hold my interest. But the Reacher bonding with his possible daughter angle had a little more going for it because there’s some unforced cuteness (largely on account of Yarosh), but not much.

Smulders, who with her role in the Marvel movies as Commander Maria Hill, puts in a strong performance as a strong woman who can take care of herself here, but I wish that the film gave her more chances to upstage Cruise. Smulders’ Turner stands up to Reacher, but still lags behind him in the New Orleans-set climax which involves a chase across rooftops in the French Quarter with fireworks overhead – this plays out as predictably clichéd as it sounds.

He’s getting slightly more grizzled looking now, but at 54 Cruise can still pull off being an A-list action hero – especially if guys like Liam Neeson can still do it at a decade older. Hell, Harrison Ford is still making BLADE RUNNER and INDIANA JONES movies * and he’s 74!

Point is, Cruise still has a lengthy career ahead of being an indestructible badass. But, here’s hoping that he’ll choose worthier, more inspired projects than this in the years to come.

* Okay, Fords last Indiana Jones movie was in 2008, but he’s got another scheduled for 2019, and BLADE RUNNER 2049 comes out in a year. So there.

More later...

Friday, October 14, 2016

A MAN CALLED OVE: A Lovely Look At The Life Of A Curmudgeon

Now playing at an indie art house near me:

A MAN CALLED OVE (Dir. Hannes Holm, 2016)

There is a mini genre of movies about old cranky guys whose wives have just died and they have to realize that, with the help of some quirky elements, there are still reasons to still want to be alive. See ABOUT SCHMIDT, GRAN TARINO, and UP for starters.

Add to that short but sweet list writer/director Hannes Holms’s A MAN CALLED OVE, which stars Rolf Lassgård as Ove, a 60-ish widower who lives in a small gated townhouse community in a pretty plain looking suburb of Sweden.

When Ove loses his job of 43 years with the railroad, he decides to take his life so that he can join his wife in the afterlife much sooner. But his attempts to hang himself (with a thin blue nylon rope that you know is just going to break) keep getting interrupted by a family moving in next door.

Ove’s new neighbors consist of the pregnant Iranian refugee Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), her dopey, bearded husband (Tobias Almborg), and their two young daughters (Zozan Akgün and Nelly Jamarani).

Ove’s suicide attempts trigger a series of emotional flashbacks which show us how his parents died at an early age, how he got his job, how he met his wife Sonja (Ida Engvoll), and how, in the most vivid and impactful one, how their life was derailed by a tragic accident.

In between these affecting flashbacks in which Ove is well played by the 30-ish Filip Berg, Parvaneh gets closer to the present day ornery Ove and even has him babysit her kids. Then Ove, who has a heart that’s “too big” as we are told on a hospital visit, takes in a mangy cat, lets a teenager who’s been kicked out of his house for being gay stay at his apartment, and teaches Parveneh how to drive.

However, all through this, Ove daily visits his wife’s grave and tells her he’ll be there as soon as he can.

Based on Fredrik Backman’s 2012 novel, A MAN CALLED OVE is a lovely look at the life of a curmudgeon. It can get a bit cutesy at times, but its humor and plainspoken unpretentiousness grounds the proceedings. I was greatly amused by Lassgård’s Ove who bemoans who he calls the “white shirts” (corporate bureaucrats), and the “idiots” who are pretty much everyone else who gets in his way.

The film serves as a excellent introduction for American audiences (and me) to Lassgård, who’s an award-winning Swedish actor with an impressive resume of film and television work. Holm’s movie itself has deservedly won awards in his home country and is an international hit – it’s also Sweden’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the next Oscars - so don’t let things like subtitles, or weird dislike of foreign films keep you from this charming, uplifting crowd pleaser.

The people who’d pass this up for some lackluster, and uninspiring title at the multiplex are what Ove most mutters under his breath throughout the film: “idiots.”

More later...

Friday, October 07, 2016

THE BIRTH OF A NATION: Powerful But Extremely Problematic

Now playing at a multiplex or indie art house near you:

THE BIRTH OF A NATION (Dir. Nate Parker, 2016)

I can’t remember the last time I was so conflicted over a movie. As many film writers have noted in the case of actor/writer/director/producer Nate Parker’s biopic of slave revolutionary Nat Turner, this is one of the hardest times ever to separate the art from the artist.

For 17 years ago, while attending Pennsylvania State University, Parker and the film’s screenwriter, Jean McGianni Celestin, who were then roommates and wrestling teammates, were accused of raping a fellow student. Parker was acquitted, while Celestin was found guilty of sexual assault, but it was later overturned. The accuser, after years of struggling with depression and addiction, committed suicide in 2012.

It was impossible for me to get any of that out of my mind while watching this film. That said, there were moments, maybe even full sequences, where Parker’s film almost transcended his scandal. Almost.

Parker posits his film about Turner as a historical hero’s origin story; a prestige piece of supreme Oscar bait with a sweeping score, impassioned speeches, and soaring camerawork over the countryside.

The countryside in this case being the woods and swamps of Savannah, Georgia standing in for the woods and swamps of Southampton County, Virginia, where the real Turner’s slave uprising took place.

Parker portrays Turner as a scared man constantly reeling from the everyday torture and suffering of his fellow slaves. Except for the opening, in which we meet Turner as a child played by Tony Espinosa (and learn that the boy can read), the film takes place entirely in 1831, in which we witness Turner being exploited by his master Samuel (Armie Hammer) as a preacher to be rented out to other plantations.

On one of their journeys, Nat encourages his owner to buy a young slave, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), because he’s smitten with her. Not long afterward, Nat and Cherry wed and start a family, but, of course, there’s no happily ever after here.

There are some excruciatingly gruesome scenes in which we see the horrific conditions and treatment of slaves up close – enough to make some people leave the screening I attended – but the camera cuts before rape occurs – and yes, it occurs a number of times, including a dark scene in which Cherry gets assaulted by a group of slave hunters led by Jackie Earle Haley at his most sinister.

Sparked by such evil and what he takes as a sign from God, a solar eclipse, Turner starts holding meetings in the middle of the night with other slaves to plan their rebellion.

This culminates in the ultra violent last third in which Turner and his fellow slaves travel from plantation to plantation slaughtering slave owners and their families until they themselves get mostly slaughtered in the climactic battle scene with a army of white men at a gun distillery. Turner escapes this fate but is caught two months later and is hanged.

Of course, as with any biopic or historical adaptation, filmmakers take a lot of “artistic license” in order to make movies with more dramatic impact, but Parker and Celestin’s vision of Parker takes way too many liberties with what’s on record.

Making Turner’s motivation to revolt being as a result of his wife being raped, which by all accounts didn’t happen, is a wildly inaccurate portrayal, and a curious one considering how unapologetic Parker is about his past (see his recent 60 Minutes interview). It turns Turner’s tale into one of simple revenge instead of the real revolution that went down against the oppression of an entire race.

Parker and his cast including Aunjanue Ellis, Mark Boone Junior, Colman Domingo, and Penelope Ann Miller put in solid performances, but I doubt there will be any acting Oscars awarded as no character is fleshed out beyond broad strokes. The cinematography by Elliot Davis is pretty perfunctory as well, with shots that just sit there.

I’m torn because despite those faulty elements there is passion and purpose on the screen at times that’s hard to deny, and I believe Parker and Co. truly believe they have a powerful and important story to tell – one that has a lot of topical validity especially as I consider how the audience reacted to the line “they’re killing people for no reason except being black” – but too many things feel off about THE BIRTH OF A NATION.

I understand why the title was chosen as Parker said that it’s ironic as his film is the antithesis of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 racist epic that made heroes out of the Ku Klux Klan, but I bet that that re-heated title is just going to be another strike against it in the long run.

I know from working at an indie theater that is opening Parker’s film that there’s a lot of moviegoers who are going to reject it because I’ve heard things like “I’ve saw 12 YEARS A SLAVE, why do I need to see this?” Normally I would think that that was a cynical position, but I hate to say that with the questionable quality of this film and the filmmaker’s troubling back story, that’s a pretty fair question.

So where does that leave me and this review? The most I can say for the film is that it is indeed powerful in parts, and worth seeing if you think you can get past Parker and his screenwriter’s past.

But what may be more powerful is what Sharon Loeffler, the sister of both the director and screenwriter’s accuser, recently wrote in a column in Variety: Nate Parker’s ‘Birth of a Nation’ Exploits My Sister All Over Again. When Loeffler writes that Parker and Celestin abused their power over her sibling, it’s difficult not to agree with her that their incredibly flawed film is yet another abuse of their power.

More later...