Archive for the Thriller Category

The Courier

Posted in Biography, Drama, History, Thriller, War on June 24, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Do you love Cold War spy films? Well then I have good news!

Greville Wynne is a mild-mannered British businessman with no connections to the government. That’s a plus. His frequent trips to Eastern Europe on business is another advantage. The two qualities make him a perfect candidate to be a spy. MI6 recruits him to be just that. Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) is an American CIA officer who assists. Greville is tasked with acting as a courier transporting classified information to London. His contact is Soviet agent Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) — a high-ranking foreign military officer providing top-secret intelligence

The fact that this is a true story makes it infinitely more interesting. The confrontation in 1962 was between John F Kennedy in the U.S. and Nikita Khrushchev of the USSR. The Cuban Missile Crisis was perhaps the closest the Cold War came to escalating into a full-scale nuclear conflict. That’s the historical basis but this is a character drama first and foremost. The friendship between Greville and Oleg, two men from opposite sides of the Iron Curtain forged a bond that is affecting. Greville’s wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) is kept in the dark about her husband’s activities but she suspects something is amiss. At one point she mistakenly thinks her husband is having an affair.

These portraits of history are fascinating. It’s all about the point of view. This unsurprisingly aligns with American and British interests. From the U.S. perspective and its allies of the Western Bloc, Penkovsky is a hero. His undercover operations helped put an end to the Missile Scare. However, to the Soviets and the Eastern Bloc, he was a traitor. How Penkovsky weighed patriotism vs. his moral compass would have been a compelling study. Although those ideas percolate underneath the surface, the screenplay doesn’t delve too deeply into that conversation. This is a simple movie with clearly delineated characters representing the “good” and “bad” positions.

The Courier is very much an old-school espionage thriller. They were all the rage in the 1960s: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The Ipcress File, Torn Curtain, The Double Man, Ice Station Zebra. They’re something of a vanishing breed these days. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies are recent examples of note. If I’m being charitable, I’d say this is less engaging. If I’m being blunt, the account is a bit stodgy and dull. It’s a decent well-acted movie with nice production values though. I’d recommend it to fans of those films.

The Courier debuted domestically back on March 19. After earning a paltry $6.6 million in theaters, it went to video on demand April 16, where it’s currently available. It got a DVD release June 1st.

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

Posted in Horror, Mystery, Thriller with tags on June 6, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Back in 1970, Comedian Flip Wilson performed a routine on The Ed Sullivan Show featuring a character that would become his most famous persona. Geraldine Jones was a sassy, liberated Southern woman. Stay with me. I promise this is relevant. In the comedic bit, she is a preacher’s wife. Her husband angrily demands why she bought an expensive new dress. Denying all culpability she replies, “The Devil made me do it.” The response became a ubiquitous expression of the 1970s and a hilarious way to deny all responsibility for one’s actions.

This chapter could have simply been called The Conjuring 3 but the more creative title harks back to when it was a popular and lighthearted catchphrase. Yet there’s nothing funny about this flick. In fact, a very real event inspired this story. In 1981, Arne Cheyenne Johnson, 19, was charged with murdering his landlord, Alan Bono in cold blood while they fought over his girlfriend, Debbie Glatzel. The defense? “The devil made him do it” — or more specifically a demon manipulated Johnson into stabbing Bono to death with a pocket knife.

This is technically the eighth film in “The Conjuring Universe” but only the third to star Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as Ed and Lorraine Warren, two paranormal investigators. Ed is a self-professed demonologist. Lorraine is a clairvoyant and a light trance medium. Together they form a powerful team. The Warrens are called in to contribute evidence for Arne Johnson’s (Ruairi O’Connor) defense.

That factual basis could have laid the foundation for an ambitious courtroom drama highlighted by intelligent discourse and legal precedents. I would have so much preferred that narrative to the one presented here — a shallow fright-fest. As is de rigueur for satanic possession movies, we get scenes that steal iconography from The Exorcist. Look! A hat-wearing priest (Steve Coulter) carrying a bag steps out of a car and approaches a house at night in the beginning. Now Father Gordon is evicting demons from people by shouting scripture. There are lots of bizarre happenings that utilize unsettling special effects. The series of horror vignettes admittedly do give some genuine frights.

The production provides some creepy images that manage to engage at times. It begins when a supernatural presence is trying to obtain the soul of mild bespectacled 8-year-old David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard), Debbie’s (Sarah Catherine Hook) younger brother. The little boy is possessed and his body contorts in weird ways so that you hear his bones crack. Arne Johnson gets involved when he sacrifices his own body to save the boy by speaking directly to the beast: “Come into me, I’ll fight you, come into me.” Later in flashback, we see David was visited by the evil spirit earlier while lying on a waterbed. Those are effective displays. The film is entertaining in fits and starts.

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are great actors slumming in a so-so movie. It’s not terrible. I’d recommend this to anyone who is a big fan of chapters 1 & 2. However, if you’re a demanding connoisseur of quality horror pictures, there are far better choices. A Quiet Place Part II is currently playing in theaters.

06-04-21

Army of the Dead

Posted in Action, Crime, Horror, Thriller with tags on May 27, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

It’s about quality not quantity in art. There is a power to simplicity. Most movie genres benefit from efficient storytelling. In particular, I’ve always thought comedies and animated films are better when they’re 100 minutes or less. After watching this 2 hour and 28-minute chronicle, I’m ready to add zombie movies to that list. The 1968 horror classic Night of the Living Dead adhered to that rule. Even Zack Snyder’s first foray into this genre qualifies. His feature debut was a remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Ok, so I’ll concede the 1978 original was 126 minutes. There are exceptions to every rule.

Complicated epics may benefit from longer runtimes. However, this saga is rather simple. The zombie apocalypse has left Las Vegas separated from the rest of humanity. Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) is a former war hero who’s now flipping burgers. Casino boss Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) tasks him with retrieving $200 million sitting in a vault beneath the strip. Slight complication: In 32 hours, Las Vegas will be nuked by the government as a solution to its infestation. Scott accepts the challenge and assembles a team of experts for the heist. There’s little time to waste. The clock is ticking.

The narrative highlights a flamboyant band of mercenaries. Characterization isn’t a highlight, other than to emphasize tough guys and gals in its lively cast of personalities. Scott and his estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) have unresolved issues that are shoehorned in for ersatz sentimentality. I remember Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick) and Ludwig Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer). The latter looking like a sturdier version of Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles. Their prickly interactions at the outset predictably develop into a friendship by the end. French actress Nora Arnezeder as Lily suggests Kristen Stewart in Charlie’s Angels with her short blonde hairstyle. Then there’s Zeus (Richard Cetrone ) the alpha male, and his queen (Athena Perample) in this society of the undead. Question: Can an intelligent entity with emotions and highly evolved problem-solving skills still be considered a zombie?

This is a Zack Snyder movie through and through. He’s not only the director but also a producer, and one of the screenwriters. This also marks the first time that the director has been his own DP. Much of the cinematography has a “unique” look. The actors in the foreground are often clear but the background is blurry. Occasionally even the stars are out of focus too. This was a conscious choice the director made, but it didn’t improve the experience in my living room. In a theater (this played on 600 screens) one might be more forgiving. On a TV it comes off like a visual glitch. It’s a strange decision in this 4K Ultra HD Blu-Ray age. Incidentally, Tig Notaro was digitally added post-filming, although the late addition doesn’t stand out from anyone else.

Army of the Dead has its moments. The high points occur when the adventure doesn’t take itself too seriously and calls attention to how — let’s face it — stupid it is. I especially enjoyed all the “on the nose” needle drops. They are a welcome reprieve from the heavy-handed gore. Snyder ends his saga with the most literally titled song you could imagine. The Cranberries’ protest anthem “Zombie” has absolutely nothing to do with reanimated corpses but here it is, appropriated out of context for your listening pleasure. “Night Life” and “Suspicious Minds” by Elvis Presley can be heard. However, the version of “Viva Las Vegas” that opens the film is a campier rendition by Richard Cheese and Allison Crowe. A cover of “Bad Moon Rising” by Theo Gilmore, “The End” by The Raveonettes, and Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” also pop up at amusing points.

Army of the Dead is a straightforward story undone by its interminable length. You could depict two heists in this ridiculously long zombie apocalypse tale. Is it too early to start championing a new hashtag on Twitter? “Release the NON-Snyder cut!” I’d prefer a version where the studio boldly makes the deep cuts necessary to edit this distended tedium into a compelling piece of entertainment. There’s a decent movie buried somewhere amongst all the excess.

05-22-21

Those Who Wish Me Dead

Posted in Action, Drama, Thriller with tags on May 20, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Ideas for a Movie:

Plot #1: Hannah (Angelina Jolie) is a specially trained wildland firefighter traumatized by the deaths of 3 children she failed to save.

Plot #2: Patrick (Nicholas Hoult) and Jack (Aidan Gillen) are two contract killers that complete a hit on a district attorney and his family in Fort Lauderdale.

Plot #3: Owen (Jake Weber) is a forensic accountant that sees the murder of his boss on the news. Fearing for their lives, he escapes with his 12-year-old son Connor (Finn Little).

Plot #4: Ethan (Jon Bernthal) is the strapping sheriff and ex-boyfriend of Hannah. He is now married to Allison (Medina Senghore). The couple is anticipating a new arrival. She’s pregnant.


Each one of these disparate threads could be the basis of a different production. Yet these four situations all occur in literally the first 15 minutes. They will converge in a orderly manner later, so thanks for that. Nonetheless, the segments are pitched at the audience in a haphazard deluge without clarification. I craved coherence and sense.

It’s nice to see Jolie looking like herself in an action-packed thriller. She’s directed 5 films since 2007. Over the last decade, Angelina Jolie has most notably focused the acting side of her career on (1) playing a wicked fairy godmother and (2) voicing a tiger sidekick with a talent for kung fu. She’s a tough-talking smoke jumper battling the natural elements and evil hitmen. She’s the only female firefighter hanging out with a rowdy group of manly men. They naturally accept her as one of their own, but her gorgeous countenance stands out in the crowd. This is what the actress does. Jolie has such a physicality. She is beautiful, sure, but that belies a fiery personality. In a word the star is — charismatic. Seeing Angelina in her element is clearly something Warner Bros. wanted to highlight. The marketing prominently features the star on the poster with newcomer Finn Little partially visible in the lower-left corner. Thing is, it’s not just about Hannah. Nor is she the most interesting character.

This is a chronicle set in the Montana wilderness with multiple storylines that merge into a whole. Director Taylor Sheridan wrote Best Picture nominee Hell or High Water where he brilliantly utilized a similar blueprint. I hate to break it to the filmmakers, but this film ain’t winning awards. The narrative fragments are agonizingly vague. I understand what motivates that decision. Being bombarded with unnecessary minutiae can be a drain. I’m not asking for complicated exposition. However, laying a foundation is important. There’s hardly any explanation in the opening as to what is happening.

The screenwriters have deemed information as superfluous to our experience. We get to see WHAT people are doing, but not the details of WHO they are or WHY. What is on that piece of paper that Owen entrusts to his son? Why do Patrick and Jack wish this Connor kid dead? Tyler Perry pops up for an instant. He is never heard from or seen again. His appearance is so random it’s amusing. We can infer he’s a crime boss, but these and many other questions go unexplained. The writers don’t care. I did at first, then neither did I.

The movie begins badly. The screenplay simply drops us in the middle of the action. Michael Koryta is adapting his own 2014 novel with help from Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond) and director Taylor Sheridan. A storyteller can’t expect the viewer to care about a bunch of people we know absolutely nothing about. That changes though. As the events unfold, I got more invested. There are surprises — good ones — that kept me curious. Surprisingly it’s actress Medina Senghore, not Jolie, who gets to be the biggest badass. Patrick and Jack break into Allison’s home, looking for Connor. The fact she is pregnant seriously amplifies the tension of the scene. Her response is the most exciting sequence.

Those Who Wish Me Dead is a generic thriller dressed up with capable actors and lush cinematography. This is a real throwback to the pulp fiction of the 1990s. John Grisham’s The Client comes to mind. “Young boy witnesses a murder” is a development in both. DP Ben Richardson (Beasts of the Southern Wild) highlights the terror of uncontrolled wildfires. This trashy tale has the look of sophistication even when blighted by so much ambiguity. It’s frustrating at first. The movie recovers after a disastrous beginning — somewhat. The saga ultimately manages to entertain.

05-16-21

Oxygen

Posted in Fantasy, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on May 18, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Netflix has a thing for sci-fi thrillers about people confined to a small space with diminishing air. That description describes the plot of Oxygen which came out on May 12, but coincidentally also applies to Stowaway released last month. If you haven’t seen either and can only handle one similar premise, this is the one to watch.

The chronicle concerns Elizabeth Hansen, a young (thirtysomething) woman who wakes up in a cryogenic pod the size of a coffin. Elizabeth has no memory of who she is or how she got there. She has been entombed and must find a way to escape. Her very life is at stake. The inability to even sit upright is also reminiscent of Buried, the 2010 drama starring Ryan Reynolds.

What elevates the story is Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds, Now You See Me). She is the MVP. This is essentially a one-woman show in which she convincingly portrays confusion, exasperation, and panic to the astonishment of an audience that fully appreciates the agony of her situation. Occasionally flashbacks of her past provide a reprieve to the claustrophobia. Her predicament is an experience and that is where the production uncomfortably entertains.

If she has a co-star, it is the informative computer within the hi-tech chamber. MILO (Mathieu Amalric) is a disembodied voice that constantly relays helpful information on Elizabeth’s declining resources. Though Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Quantum of Solace) is never seen, his contribution is a key ingredient. His soothing tones are both comforting and sinister. There is a real HAL 9000 vibe to his matter-of-fact delivery in the face of dire circumstances. I did enjoy their exchanges.

Oxygen is director Alexandre Aja’s (Piranha 3D, Crawl) first French-language film since High Tension in 2003. Side note. The default setting for international programs on Netflix is the English dub. You will have to manually select French with subtitles to hear this in its original format. It’s nice to have options, but I prefer when the actor’s mouth and words are perfectly in sync. This is a surprisingly restrained effort from the horror maestro. There are moments where Elizabeth must pull bloodied tubes and long needles out of her body and then insert them back in. However, that is the zenith of the gore. I appreciated the focus on emotional rather than physical terror.

In the end, Oxygen is a fine movie. It manages to entertain with a compelling performance. However, there is no earthly reason why such a simple tale should require 1 hour and 41 minutes. The account would have been much more efficient and effective as a 60 minute (or less) episode on an anthology series for TV. The extreme length really taxes the viewer’s patience. It doesn’t support what is essentially an impressive acting exercise limited by a restrained location. The considerable skills of Melanie Laurent are the highlight.

05-14-21

Stowaway

Posted in Drama, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on May 4, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

A three-person research team heads to Mars for a two-year mission. There’s commander Marina Barnett (Toni Collette), biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim), and medical researcher Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick). After they take off, they discover an accidental stowaway (Shamier Anderson). The unexpected passenger presents a conundrum.

Filmmakers Joe Penna (director, writer, producer) and Ryan Morrison (writer, editor, producer) offers the viewer another spare survival saga. The duo seems to have an affinity for this sort of thing. Their 2019 debut was Artic — an interesting tale that took place at the North Pole. Like Stowaway, Artic was a slow-burn account . However, Artic starred Mads Mikkelsen in a perilous adventure that was enough to carry us through. A cast of four people should be exponentially more engaging in theory. Unfortunately, the talented ensemble is limited by a deficient screenplay.

Fans of sci-fi are the ostensible target audience. It does indeed take place in deep space. However, most of the action is claustrophobically set inside a spaceship about the size of a large apartment. We’re treated to some impressive vistas that highlight the outdoors, but this is actually an existential drama. Granted there are some moments of tension and excitement. The crew debates ethical dilemmas while addressing various emergencies. A plan to acquire more oxygen is a heart-stopping vignette. Nevertheless, the story unfolds at far too leisurely a pace to justify a 2-hour feature.

Stowaway is a film that doesn’t cater to your expectations. Whether that’s good or bad is a matter of personal taste, but one thing’s for sure. The developments demand you continue to watch. There would appear to be more than meets the eye. Nonetheless, my suspicions went unfulfilled. The dull narrative is punctuated by one thrilling setpiece. Then culminates in a weak denouement that I found frustratingly abrupt. Sounds like a recipe for disaster and yet it isn’t because the actors are simply that compelling. This is a good movie because it’s a well-acted character study. Just not a particularly exciting one.

04-27-21

Synchronic

Posted in Drama, Horror, Mystery, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on April 20, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Synchronic is one of those films that is conveniently described as “interesting” and it’s unclear whether you mean it as a compliment. The ambiguous word is perfection because it fits this movie to a T. Steve and Dennis (Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan) are paramedics in New Orleans who also happen to be best friends. They encounter a rash of unusual deaths in their line of work. A new designer drug called Synchronic is the common thread that unites all of the cases. It would appear this drug — which is sold in single-dose packets — might have otherworldly powers. When his partner’s daughter Brianna goes missing, Steve investigates.

The narrative is a slow starter. The first half establishes the close relationship between the central duo. It’s nice to see their bond is a positive depiction of male friendship. However, both men are adrift in their everyday lives, occasionally turning to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain. Anthony Mackie’s character is a ladies’ man that has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Jamie Dornan portrays a man who had difficulty meeting women in the past (!) but is now married with two kids. He’s currently having marital problems. When the pair confront a series of bizarre fatalities in their job, it unfolds like a crime drama, disseminated in fragments using a piecemeal approach.

The second half improves. Steve becomes the hero as it concerns his investigation into the whereabouts of Brianna. His EMT partner Dennis is mostly sidelined. Dennis’ vague personality lacks a compelling identity anyway. Steve’s experimentation with Synchronic is intriguing. Here the chronicle starts to connect the threads of the grisly murders we witnessed before. These developments provide some much-needed clarification in a picture heretofore wallowing in existential gloom. The script plays with the idea that sometimes nostalgia isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. “The past f—–g sucks, man!” Steve cries out at one point.

This is the fourth feature from filmmaking duo Justin Benson and Scott Moorhead who specialize in quirky features (Spring, The Endless) that blend sci-fi with horror. Synchronic debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019 but didn’t get released to the public until after Project Power and Tenet. It feels like an amalgamation of those movies but through a low-budget indie B-movie aesthetic. Synchronic is a real downer of a film. Not a criticism. Just a fact. Nevertheless, its aimless meandering feels somewhat pointless until that mic drop of an ending involving a troubling sacrifice. The “good old days” are a misnomer. “Be thankful you live in the present” is the veiled admonition presented in its final scene. Fair enough. However I suspect a hundred years from today, someone will make a similar movie condemning our current era.

04-19-21

The Shadow of Violence

Posted in Crime, Drama, Thriller with tags on April 18, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Selecting the right title for a film is an artistic decision. In the UK this production was poetically released as Calm with Horses — based on the short story of the same name by Irish writer Colin Barrett. This is what the movie was called everywhere. Everywhere except in the US, where it was changed to The Shadow of Violence. So bland. That generic title always escapes me.

Thankfully the picture itself is anything but forgettable. The debut feature from director Nick Rowland is skillfully composed and self-assured. It deserves a bigger audience. Inexplicably it was dropped in U.S. theaters last year on July 31, 2020, during the economic shutdown. Given that most theaters were closed, it isn’t surprising that few Americans saw it. Then it debuted on Netflix on January 21, 2021. To be honest, this still wasn’t even on my radar until the April 11th BAFTAs where it garnered an impressive four nominations.

The chronicle concerns an ex-boxer (Cosmo Jarvis) who works as the muscle for the Devers, a drug-dealing family in rural Ireland. Despite his rough exterior Douglas — whose nickname is Arm — is a sympathetic soul. He’s trying to break away from the negative influence of his troublemaking chum (Barry Keoghan). Arm wants to concentrate on being a good father to his 5-year-old autistic son Jack. Calm with Horses refers to the peace that Jack finds when he’s engaged in equestrian pursuits. Arm’s loyalties are tested when the Devers clan asks him to kill someone.

Actor Cosmo Jarvis is impressive in the lead. His memorable performance is full of passion and nuance . Arm is a man conflicted between his son vs. his loyalty to violent mobsters. Choosing the right path is complicated. The Devers took him in at a low point in his life. He feels like he owes them. Jarvis is compelling even though he did not pick up a BAFTA nomination. Actor Barry Keoghan did. He portrays his violent buddy Dymphna. Actress Niamh Algar playing his estranged girlfriend Ursula did as well. She is also the mother to his son.

Other cast members may have reaped more accolades, but it’s Jarvis that seizes our attention. Douglas may look like a massive brute, but his appearance belies a sensitive and tender personality. The difference in size between the hulking Cosmo Jarvis and the diminutive Barry Keoghan sort of gave me a George and Lennie vibe from Of Mice and Men. This is exceptionally bleak and depressing, a somewhat atypical view of Ireland. It takes a while for the narrative to take shape. Once it does, it’s a captivating character-driven drama with several authentic performances.

04-14-21

Godzilla vs. Kong

Posted in Action, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on April 1, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

You’d think a movie with the title Godzilla vs. Kong would be pretty self-explanatory. Not hard to understand, right? Well, you’d be wrong. This is the fourth entry in Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse — a comprehensive series featuring Godzilla and King Kong. Like Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, the filmmakers have decided to devise a needlessly complicated backstory to connect it to the previous installments. This directly draws upon the setup in Kong: Skull Island (2017) as well as Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019). I just want to see two beasts face off in the biggest beatdown in history. Can I?

The answer is yes, you can….after suffering through 40 minutes of exposition that weaves a lot of convoluted details that connect the stories of the earlier chapters into this one. This includes a discussion of “Hollow Earth” That is the idea that the center of the planet has an excavated space with other titans living within. Devoted viewers may recall this was brought up in Kong: Skull Island. The Skull Crawlers from that feature also make a brief appearance here too. Hollow Earth was likewise discussed in Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Godzilla is using subterranean tunnels to swim across the globe. Just quickly tell me, but don’t subject me to nearly an hour of talking heads pontificating about the idea. It’s a tortuous set of details that is bewilderingly hard to follow. News flash: Your movie is called Godzilla vs. Kong. If I wanted a confusing scientific explanation I’ll watch Primer. Director Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest) doesn’t seem to grasp the idea that audiences don’t require laborious clarifications in a monster flick. One line from Rebecca Hall as Dr. Ilene Andrews explains it perfectly: the rivalry between these two beastly kings is rooted in a historical feud traversing centuries to an epic Titan War. Their hate spans generations. Got it. That’s all I needed to know.

The title is about creatures, but the screenplay written by Eric Pearson (Thor: Ragnarok) and Max Borenstein (Godzilla: King of the Monsters) is frustratingly all about the people. They deliver their lines in blunt simplistic declarations. Alexander Skarsgård is Dr. Nathan Lindof of the Monarch corporation. Monarch is the secret scientific organization created to study these huge beasts. With his matinee-idol good looks, Nathan is handsome but very capable. Rebecca Hall is Dr. Ilene Andrews, the beautiful but still extremely brilliant anthropological linguist who’s been trying to communicate with Kong with little success. Surprise! It’s Ilene’s adopted daughter who has established a rapport that she cannot. Jia is an eight-year-old orphan — cute as a button — who happens to be an Iwi native that forms an unusual bond with Kong.

Sorry, the humans are uninteresting. Nevertheless, actress Kaylee Hottle as Jia is possibly the human MVP of the ensemble. As if her character wasn’t already precious enough, she is a deaf/mute actress that communicates through sign language. The contrast between the diminutive Jia communicating with the larger-than-life Kong is the closest thing you’ll get to poignancy in this undertaking. If a tribal girl with seemingly magical abilities isn’t a predictable trope, I don’t know what is. There’s also Brian Tyree Henry as a quirky conspiracy theorist who joins forces with two precocious kids played by Millie Bobby Brown and Julian Dennison. The random tangent of their story arc promises a Goonies-esque adventure that never materializes in any meaningful way. But who cares? None of this nonsense is crucial to the plot anyway. Demián Bechir portrays Walter Simmons, the tech founder of Apex Cybernetics. He’s an evil billionaire (Is there any other kind?). He has a sexy adult daughter embodied by rising star Eiza González. She’s a top-tier executive but is fond of wearing tight fitting clothing that doesn’t highlight her intelligence. Apex Cybernetics is responsible for creating Mechagodzilla, a man-made weapon designed to destroy Godzilla. Later Bechir’s character selects a Japanese employee (Shun Oguri) to pilot the man-made contraption. I don’t write this stuff folks. I merely review it.

Luckily the picture is smart enough to know that we came here for the battles and there are a couple of doozies. The first one is under the sea where Godzilla has the upper hand. But the second one begins in the hollow earth where Kong realizes that this might be his ancestral home. It’s here that he picks up an ax made from a spike off the back of Godzilla’s ancestors . The second showdown ultimately occurs when Kong jumps through a portal to meet Godzilla. They end up in the streets of Hong Kong. The setting amongst the buildings with neon outlines resembles a disco nightclub. It’s in these moments that Godzilla vs. Kong redeems itself into the movie you came to see.

There was a time when I enjoyed these nonsensical fight fests without giving a care. I often wonder how I would’ve reacted to a flick such as this when I was 5. Back then, they utilized actual people in suits. That would have been preferable. Here the CGI fest feels more like a cartoon than an organic meeting of physical enemies. Welcome to 2021. Another peculiarity of the 21st century is that insidery callbacks to earlier episodes are considered more of a priority than simply telling a coherent story. Only diehard fans will recognize every single one of these “easter eggs” inserted into the dense narrative. Ah but that is the current state of cinema. Speaking of which, this was simultaneously released for free to subscribers on HBO Max and in theaters in the U.S. Given our current reality, it’s obvious most people will see this on a TV. That’s fine. Even IMAX can’t fix a bad script. At least the production has a sense of humor. The quirky soundtrack emphasizes selections that perfectly describe the scene. “Over The Mountain, Across The Sea” by Bobby Vinton, Elvis Presley’s “Loving Arms”, “Breaking The Law” by Judas Priest, and “The Air That I Breathe” by The Hollies all play at key intervals. I chuckled at how the lyrics perfectly encapsulate the action on screen. Godzilla vs. Kong is by no means a good movie, but it’s moments like these that remind me it can still be fun. At this juncture in time, that just might be enough.

03-31-21

The Mauritanian

Posted in Drama, Thriller with tags on March 20, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The story of what happened to Mohamedou Ould Salahi is a troubling tale that details a shocking abuse of human rights.

The Mauritanian is based on his memoir Guantánamo Diary published in January 2015. Salahi was detained on suspicion of being involved with the planning of the September 11 attacks. The story begins when he is apprehended at a wedding back in his home country. The case against him includes a lot of ties to various people who were indeed involved. However, the evidence implicating him is circumstantial. Clear-cut proof that Salahi himself had anything to do with 9/11 is lacking. Part of the film details his experiences at the prison as well as his interactions with other inmates. The constant demands made upon him to give a confession grow more and more intense. It is an emotional portrait that humanizes the man and stokes our anger over the way he is treated. Tahar Rahim stars as Salahi. He elevates the production with a powerful performance that draws us into his plight.

The chronicle is also a legal drama that features his defense team. Jodie Foster is criminal defense lawyer Nancy Hollander and her associate Teri Duncan is portrayed by Shailene Woodley. Doubts over whether their client is culpable keep coming up. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch on the side of the prosecution. His desire to get a conviction is balanced with a need to make sure they have the right man. Even though everyone seems conflicted, we the audience are not. Salahi’s innocence is implied at the beginning so coming to terms with his guilt or lack thereof is never a conundrum. The Mauritanian is pretty clear-cut in its presentation that the U.S. government failed.

This is a disturbing movie. Salahi was ultimately held for fourteen years in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp from 2002 until his release in 2016 without ever being charged. That prison is infamous for the inhumane treatment that detainees experienced there. This movie climaxes with torture. The picture is noble in its intentions to bring a grave injustice to light but it’s hard to watch at times. I didn’t need to see graphic abuse to know bad things happened there. Director Kevin Macdonald famously directed The Last King of Scotland which brilliantly demonstrated how sometimes evil remains hidden in plain sight. Here it’s never a question of who’s right and who’s wrong, so the viewer must simply suffer along with Salahi until his eventual freedom.

03-11-21