25 years ago today, on October 15, 1993, not one but THREE excellent films were released:
the surprisingly good suspense film “Judgment Night” starring Emilio Estevez, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Denis Leary
the cult classic holiday favorite from Tim Burton “The Nightmare Before Christmas”
the sports movie favorite “Rudy” starring Sean Astin.
22 July – Devastating, hard to watch, yet impeccably made docudrama recounts the worst terrorist attack in Norway’s history in the summer of 2011. At nearly 2 and a 1/2 hours, the film lags at times, but for the most part, is a compelling portrayal of the tragic events. Director Paul Greengrass (United 93, Captain Phillips, several of the Jason Bourne films, etc.) utilizes his hyper-reality style of film-making to dramatic effect in a film which is essentially divided into three parts. The first third of 22 July depicts the actual bombing of the Norwegian Prime Minister’s office in Oslo and the subsequent attack on the summer camp of the island of Utoya. In total, Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people and injured hundreds more in the name of extreme Right-wing nationalism. The middle third of the film is the weakest, depicting the immediate aftermath of the incident on victim’s families, the defense attorney assigned to Breivik’s case, the government and others involved. The human element is present, but it lacks the immediacy and drama of the previous opening moments of the movie. It’s also a section that we’ve seen done better in films like Stronger (with Jake Gyllenhaal). Fortunately, things pick back up in the final third of the feature which focuses on the trial of Breivik, the fight of victim’s families to keep him from speaking in court, and the push for one victim to testify against him. Overall, 22 July is an excellent, but uneven production that shows the graphic effects of terrorism. The Norway attacks in 2011 have been called that country’s 9/11, but I would say they are more akin to the Oklahoma City bombings by Timothy McVeigh. This is a case of a homegrown terrorist, acting on a delusional political mission, who felt he was fighting in a larger ideological war. Due to the nature of the killer, his sequences are far more intriguing to watch than the stories of the victims, which may not have been the director’s intentions. Still, it is a quality overall effort and director Greengrass continues to make some of the best “based in real life” dramas in cinema. 22 July is available to watch on Netflix and a few select theaters.
Mandy – Bonkers, over-stylized, and over the top grindhouse exploitation flick that is not nearly as good as some critics have made it out to be, but is certainly more fun than it really has any right to be. And Nicolas Cage gives another one of his bat-sh!t crazy performances. The premise is simple and you’ve seen it before. Man has girl. Man loses girl to psychos. Man left for dead but lives. Man returns for extreme vengeance. For those who love splatter films and gore, this should certainly quench that thirst, but the film also has some great one liners, some hilarious violence and style up the wazoo (although its a bit overbearing at times). At times it feels that director Panos Cosmatos (son of George Cosmatos who directed 80s schlock such as Rambo First Blood Part II, Stallone’s Cobra and Leviathan) is trying a little too hard to make this a midnight cult classic, and it may very well become one, but there are some scenes where the style outweighs the substance (there are some animated sequences; some work and some don’t / also a lot of psychedelic coloring) or a sequence becomes unintentionally funny. Cage plays a logger in the Pacific Northwest who is living a peaceful life with his artist girlfriend Mandy in relative peace. They share past traumas with each other but seem to be two wounded souls who have found each other. Mandy excels in fantasy art and unaware to Cage’s logger, she has taken to reading about the occult. Following her readings, she begins to have visions and makes an inadvertent telepathic link with the head of a drug cult family. The cult leader summons his followers to kidnap Mandy which they do with the help of some demonic bikers called up through a human sacrifice. They drug Mandy and try to make her the lover to the cult leader but she sees through her hallucinogenic haze and laughs in the face of the cult leader. Enraged, he proceeds to torture the logger and then make him watch them burn her alive. Eventually the cult leaves and the logger is left for dead. Of course, he frees himself, finds some weapons and vows to kill them all in very creative ways. What the film lacks in originality, it more than makes up for with Cage’s hysterical, way over the top performance, some unexpected humor and a great early 80s vibe. This won’t appeal to everyone but if you like low grade, exploitation blood and guts, you will likely enjoy this.
It took a creepy ass nun to knock those “Crazy Rich Asians” from the top of the box office in America. The new film “The Nun” starring Demian Bichir and Taissa Farmiga, a spin-off from “The Conjuring” horror movie series, took first place this weekend with $53.5 million dollars and another $77.5 million overseas to gross over $131 million. The film only cost $22 million to make. After a three week reign, the surprise indie film “Crazy Rich Asians” fell to second place while still making an impressive $13.6 million.
Operation Finale – A solid but unexceptional suspense drama based on true life events with two quality performances by the leads, Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley. Based on the Israeli 1960 operation to extract Nazi officer and co-architect of the “Final Solution” Adolf Eichmann from Buenos Aires, Argentina, the film captures the tension and drama of the situation well, but there are also certainly dramatic licenses taken to up the suspense quotient (a la Argo a few years back). Isaac plays a Mossad agent who lost his sister in the Holocaust and wants justice at all costs. Unfortunately that fervor has resulted in mistakes in previous covert operations against Nazis on the run which has led to colleagues being wary of having them on their team for this important mission. Once the target is confirmed as high ranking Nazi officer Eichmann (a superb Kingsley), his experience wins out and he joins the Mossad team to kidnap Eichmann from non-extradition Argentina to await trial in Israel. When authorities in Argentina get word of the plot, its a race against time to stop the Israeli agents from getting out of the country with the high profile Nazi. This is an enjoyable, historical drama with no real flaws, but nothing that really makes it stand out as memorable. There are some tonal changes which feel awkward (moments of levity during a very dramatic incident) and the overall vibe is that this is a very “Hollywood-ized”, cleaned up version of the true life events. Doesn’t mean its a bad film; its just not an awards caliber type movie with the pedigree of actors and subject matter involved. This is a lot less like Spielberg’s Munich and more akin to a feature like 2010’s “The Debt” with Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain – both films with similar subject matter as Operation Finale. In the end, the performances by Kingsley and Isaac are the highlights, and you are likely to be entertained by this film. Just don’t expect to see it walking away with awards at the end of the year.
The Meg – By all accounts, this is a terrible movie. The acting is terrible, the dialogue insipid, the story dumb and the effects mediocre at best. And yet, in spite of myself, I found myself mildly entertained. Now let’s get this straight: I wasn’t on the edge of my seat nor was I fascinated by amazing visuals or enraptured with a quality plot. None of these things apply. Really, I was just amused at the whole audacity that this thing even got made. There’s a reason why a film like “Sharknado” has spawned multiple sequels. Some people just want fun nonsense in which not a single brain cell is used. And that’s ok. Sometimes you just need a good veg movie. And that’s what the Meg is. Jason Statham (not the highest caliber of actor) is a deep sea rescue operative who is haunted by the fact that he was not able to save all of the crew in his last mission. Worse, no one believes him that a giant creature attacking the ship was the reason he had to leave some behind. Meanwhile, a maritime exploration team funded by a billionaire (Rainn Wilson as a Richard Branson type) has discovered a rift in the ocean floor which covers an aquatic world sealed off by time. Upon breaching this rift, they discover a world of aquatic species long thought extinct. However, the beautiful world becomes a nightmare when they realize that not all of the creature life is friendly. Among these creatures is the long thought extinct Megalodon, the biggest shark to ever roam the Earth; a creature so big that it would prey on whales. Statham’s bug out character is recruited to save a stranded team stuck in the rift and unfortunately, as they make their escape, the creatures follow and are now out in the open ocean and on the attack. Mayhem ensues. The cast is obviously having fun with this material as none of the story is serious by any stretch of the imagination. There’s a lot of lame humor, bad quips and groan worthy CGI to last the rest of the summer. But if you kind of liked movies like Deep Blue Sea or Piranha 3D, this is in a similar mode. A big prehistoric beast of a movie that should be extinct but adds up to a massive guilty pleasure.
Hollywood studios were shocked this weekend as the new film “Crazy Rich Asians”, a romantic comedy with a diverse cast of mostly Asian heritage, stole the top spot at the U.S. domestic box office. The movie outperformed several star-studded action features including Mark Wahlberg’s Mile 22, Jason Statham’s The Meg and Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible: Fallout.
It is likely to be the most talked about Asian motion picture since Mickey Rooney’s stellar performance in 1961’s “Breakfast At Tiffany’s”.
Director Spike Lee is very much in vogue this year with a successful Netflix series (She’s Gotta Have it – based on his first feature film), several advertising and video game projects, and now, perhaps, one of the very best films of his up and down career. Lee has become very reminiscent of another famous New York film director – Woody Allen – who also plays his productions by his own tune. Like Allen, Spike Lee will throw out three or four personal projects which fail to connect with audiences and then suddenly bam! Major hit. In Woody Allen’s case, it was a string of classic early hits (Sleeper, Annie Hall, Manhattan, etc.) followed by a turn into serious, personal works (Interiors, Radio Days, etc.), a mid-career resurgence (Hannah And Her Sisters, Bullets Over Broadway), some more smaller scale works (Celebrity, Deconstructing Harry) and then hitsville again (Match Point, Midnight In Paris). Spike Lee has had a very similar trajectory. Major works at the start of his career like Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X, followed by smaller scale works such as Jungle Fever and Crooklyn. Then he would follow up with some quality studio work like 25th Hour with Edward Norton and Inside Man with Denzel Washington. Back to the smaller scale with stuff like Miracle At St. Anna and Chi-raq…and now BOOM! BlacKkKlansman hits the spot as an intense, electrically charged, divisive yet compassionate treatise on race in this country. It is done with style and smarts with an engaging, based on true life story and an infusion of light humor and fun amidst the proceedings. Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first black cop hired by the Colorado Springs police force in the early 1970s. He is initially forced to work as a menial desk clerk but he soon climbs the ladder to detective. Stallworth is placed undercover to spy on black rights activist Kwame Ture (aka Stokely Carmichael) where he instead takes pride in his race and falls for a local college girl who serves as a community activist. Inspired by the event, Stallworth takes it upon himself to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. He speaks to the KKK leaders via phone and he gets his colleague Flip (Adam Driver) to serve as the white version of himself for in person meets. Soon, the team is in contact with Grand Dragon David Duke (Topher Grace) himself and they find themselves in a variety of sticky situations as they get deeper and deeper into the hate group. While entertaining, BlacKkKlansman seethes with anger, putting a microscope to modern America and showing us that we really haven’t come all that far from the racist mindset of the 50s and 60s. This is a startling, eye opening movie and one of the better features of the year to date.
Mission Impossible: Fallout – With the new Mission Impossible film, Tom Cruise says, “You were impressed with me dangling from the Burj Khalifa and hanging on to the outside of a cargo plane in flight? Hold my drink!” From close quarter hand to hand combat in a night club bathroom to a motorcycle chase through the streets of Paris; rooftop chases through London and helicopter fights in Kashmir, this one covers it all. Action junkies will certainly get their fix. Tom Cruise, who recently turned 56 despite looking like he never ages (a living CGI effect if you will), gives us another dose of death defying stunts, races against time and various high tech gadgetry. In Fallout, a plutonium trade goes awry and ends up stolen by a terrorist group known as The Apostles who are contract killers with allegiance to Solomon Kane (Sean Harris) who played the villain in the last installment Rogue Nation. In an attempt to track down the stolen plutonium, they make contact with a femme fatale broker (Vanessa Kirby) named the White Widow who sets up illicit trades. Posing as a terrorist, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) secures a deal with the Apostles: the release of villain Kane in exchange for the plutonium. Meanwhile, the U.S. government has forced the MI Team to partner with an assassin (Henry Cavill) to make sure they follow orders and do not go rogue again. Of course, things go awry, Solomon Kane escapes and its a race against time to stop a nuclear detonation. Throw into the mix British agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who also appeared in Rogue Nation, who has been assigned by MI6 to eliminate Kane at all costs. It’s pretty amazing that this franchise continues to get better and better after being around for over 22 years. There’s been plenty of great action films released in 2018 so far – add Mission Impossible: Fallout to the top of the list.
Sequel to the 2014 Denzel Washington action film which in turn was loosely based on the 80s television series, The Equalizer 2 ups the ante in the action and suspense departments. Much better than the pretty good, but nothing great original, this feature builds up nicely to an action packed finale. In this one, Robert McCall (Washington) has settled into a routine of randomly helping people in trouble while still tormented by the memory of his deceased wife. When a friend (Melissa Leo) from his government operative days is murdered in brutal fashion, McCall becomes obsessed with finding the perpetrators. He soon discovers a cabal of former black ops he worked with in the past have gone rogue and are taking murder contracts. Of course this leads to a cat and mouse game where each are the hunter and the hunted. Director Antoine Fuqua gives us a solid production with Denzel Washington in top form as the expert killing machine. The pacing is a little off at times though; the film starts with a brief action sequence aboard a train, but slows down after that to develop characters and various plot points. However, the movie eventually gains momentum with the action sequences getting more complex and ultimately culminating in a fantastic sequence which takes place in an abandoned town during a hurricane. The Equalizer 2 is no classic by any stretch, but its an improvement on the first film in this series and a strong entry in the action genre.