Movie Reviews Archives for 2019-08

Movie Review Don't Let Go

Don’t Let Go is a pulse-pounding stunner of a time travel thriller. David Oyelowo stars in Don’t Let go as Detective Jack Radcliff, an L.A cop with a very close relationship with his niece, Ashley (Storm Reid). Ashley’s dad, played in a cameo by Bryan Tyree Henry, is a troubled songwriter and part time drug dealer, who has recently gotten deep in over his head. It’s led him to neglect his daughter, and place his family in danger. 


How much danger? When Jack goes for a visit to his brother’s home, he finds the door standing open. Inside, he finds his brother’s wife on the floor, shot dead. Upstairs, Jack finds the body of his brother, dead from a gunshot wound to the head which we see in grisly detail as Jack’s grief overcomes him and he clutches his brothers gaping skull, attempting to hold closed the already fatal wound. 


The most devastating blow however, is yet to come. After finding his brother’s body, Jack goes looking for Ashley and finds her shot to death in the family bathroom, her attempt to flee through a window cut short. It’s a stunning scene and one played by David Oyelowo with a forlorn resignation and jarring emotionality. Oyelowo may be slight in build but his emotional stature is towering and in this scene, devastating. 


In another universe, we would get a straight ahead cop procedural in which Jack tracks down the killers, held back by the rules of law and probably some insider corruption that keeps the baddies ahead of his every move until he’s able to outwit them. That’s not, however, what Don’t Let Go is. This is nothing remotely typical. Written and directed by Jacob Estes, best known for the indie thriller Mean Creek, Don’t Let Go has a time travel conceit that subverts expectations in wonderfully inventive and genuinely surprising ways. 


Days after laying his family to rest, Jack’s phone rings and the display claims that the call is coming from Ashley’s phone. The calls keep coming until finally Jack answers and finds Ashley on the other end. No, she’s not survived by some miracle, she’s actually calling from two weeks in the past, a time before the murder. How is this possible? The filmmakers don’t appear to care about that and neither should we. 


The most important thing to consider in order to find Don’t Let Go as compelling and excited as I did, is not to get caught up on why this is happening. For me, the rest of Don’t Let Go is so interesting, so unique and attention grabbing, I simply bought into the story and went where the movie wanted to take me. I bought into the suspense, I bought into the blood and guts and I bought into this complicated premise that might prove to be a dealbreaker for less committed audience members. 


You cannot overestimate how incredible David Oyelowo is in Don’t Let Go. Oyelowo has remarkable instincts, his eyes are so alive and compelling. You never catch Oyelowo acting and yet the look on his face demonstrates wheels turning and remarkable effort. The blood, the sweat, the dirt, Oyelowo lives this role and I found his intensity and commitment impossible to resist. The same could be said of his young co-star, Storm Reid. Reid impressed me in Ava Duvernay's wonderful, A Wrinkle in Time and she's equally as impressive here as she attempts to solve her own murder. 


Don’t Let Go absolutely came out of nowhere for me. The generic title made me believe this was going to be a minor and forgettable and perhaps that low bar helped a little. Writer-director Jacob Estes though makes a strong case that Don’t Let Go with its unusual time travel premise and heart-stopping suspense is just a really great thriller. The pace is perfectly calibrated and the film score is among the best of 2019. 


Don’t Let Go is exceptional and at a time where we lack in great thrillers, the film stands out that much more for being a classic piece of genre filmmaking.


Movie Review Angel Has Fallen

Angel Has Fallen stars Gerard Butler as Secret Service Agent, Mike Banning. Banning was the protagonist of Olympus Has Fallen and London Has Fallen in recent years. In Angel Has Fallen we find a battered and bruised Banning suffering from post-concussion syndrome and relying on opioid to get by. Mike is hiding his condition from his wife (Piper Perabo) and even from his employer, President Trumbull (Morgan Freeman). 


The only person aware of Mike’s issues is his closest friend, heretofore never mentioned in either previous movie despite also being a military and security expert whose tactical abilities might have come in handy in Mike’s previous adventures, Wade Jennings (Danny Huston). The two come together for beers and reminiscing and Mike confides that he is having some issues even as career-wise things are going well. Mike is soon to be named as the new head of the Secret Service. 


The plot kicks in when Mike is guarding the President while he fishes on a private lake in Virginia. As Mike is taking a break to get more of his pills, the President’s security team is attacked by drones. All of the security team is killed except for Mike who also manages to rescue the President who is left in a coma from the attack. Mike is knocked unconscious and when he wakes up the next day he finds himself in handcuffs. 


It seems that Mike’s fingerprints and DNA were found inside of a van from which the drones were launched. There is also the matter of some $10 million dollars traced back to Russia that has been found in an offshore account in Mike’s name. The FBI, led by Agent Thompson (Jada Pinkett Smith), is convinced that Mike is guilty of having orchestrated the attack on the President. He’s arrested and things get even weirder when Mike is busted out by a group of military trained mercenaries. 


From there, Mike will escape the mercenaries and go on the run alone until he reaches the survivalist compound of his long absent father, Clay Banning (Nick Nolter), who gives him a place to hole up and regroup while the entire world searches for him. Mike has to figure out who set him up and how to prove to the good guys that he’s innocent so he can go after the bad guys and take them down while making sure the President is safe. 


Where to begin with this idiotic plot. Angel Has Fallen is a singularly stupid movie. Most modern action movies are kind of brain dead but Angel Has Fallen takes brain death to a place of oxygen starved severity. Where movies like Fast and Furious Presents Hobbs and Shaw are dumb loud action movies that also happen to be fun, Angel Has Fallen is dumb, loud and unwatchably insipid. Angel Has Fallen lacks the charm to be fun and dumb. Instead, we are simply inundated with one dumb action scene after another in service of a deeply idiotic plot. 


The dopey script, in order to get to the Mike Banning as The Fugitive plot they pre-ordained, has every other character in the movie turn into a complete moron. I was reminded of how the original movie, Olympus Has Fallen, in order to set out Mike as the greatest badass in history, turned the rest of the American military into fumbling doofuses who couldn’t shoot straight, a plot so offensive I was shocked that the movie found an audience among those who claim to support our military. 


In Angel Has Fallen, it’s US intelligence that gets struck dumb in order to put over Mike as the one smart person in a sea of idiots. Poor Jada Pinkett Smith is forced to try and make this uniquely moronic plot work but in order to do that, she’s forced to act as the single most fog brained FBI agent in movie history. Only the most obvious clues are the ones that matter to her according to the plot and her single-minded, unquestioning, performance renders her witless. 


That shouldn’t be too surprising as the movie has an equal amount of contempt for the audience. The plot of Angel Has Fallen could not be more predictable if they had handed out laminated copies of the script, color coded with notes about which characters are good and trustworthy and which ones are duplicitous baddies. If you can’t identify the two big villains of this movie within the first 5 minutes of the movie starting, you might want to check into a hospital to have your faculties checked. 


Then, there is Gerard Butler, arguably the most charm-free and talentless of our modern action heroes. While some might seek to compare Butler to the Stallone’s and Schwarzenegger’s of the 80’s action genre, a better correlative would be Steven Seagal. Both are lunkheads with an arrogance that far surpasses their talent and a doughy, gormless quality to their appearance that betrays their over abundance of confidence. 


Butler’s Banning, like every one of the characters Seagal played, is invincible, indestructible and due to some unspoken supernatural force, always capable of outsmarting people clearly smarter than they are. Butler, at the very least, hasn't tried to bring the ponytail back and is actually capable of running where Seagal's heroes were more stationary than your average couch, but the two share far more in common with their utter lack of genuine talent. 


The screenwriters of the Fallen movies sacrifice the dignity and self-respect of every other character in these movies in their vain attempt to convince us that the sweaty, grunting, lummox that is Mike Banning, is the most cunning and crafty character on screen. It’s a failing effort from the start and that becomes an almost poignant source of campy laughs as these movies where on.


I genuinely began to feel sorry for Angel Has Fallen screenwriter Mark Robert Kamen as this movie wore on. Kamen's blood, sweat and tears must be all over these pages as he violates basic screenwriting ethics and general good taste just to try to make this one character remotely believable in the hands of this lunk headed star. 


Angel Has Fallen is thus far the worst movie of 2019.


Movie Review Angry Birds 2

Angry Birds 2 is a significant improvement over the original. The first Angry Birds in 2016 was not terrible but it was plagued by the notion that it was a mercenary effort that was solely capitalizing on the hit app game. That was an accurate assessment but the creative team and the actors did make some of Angry Birds palatable with some solid jokes and a reasonably logical narrative. 


Three years later the app game is pretty much a relic and the creative team behind Angry Birds 2 don’t have nearly as much of the burden of being mercenary or soulless. With distance from the game, we can focus on big jokes and these likable characters voiced by talented stars. It may still be a minor effort, but Angry Birds 2 justifies its own existence by garnering way more laughs than you expect. 


Angry Birds 2 picks up the story of the Angry Birds and their rival green pigs as both islands continue to prank each other via their oversized slingshots. Red (Jason Sudeikis) is basking in the glory of having rescued Bird Island from the pig onslaught of the last movie. Unfortunately, even as his heroic self esteem grew, his insecurity has grown as well. Red has a deep seated fear that the current esteem in which he is held could go away at any moment and the thought is keeping him from enjoying all of the positive attention. 


One night, after Red’s friends Bomb (Danny McBride) and Chuck (Josh Gad) drag him away from the beach where he stands watch daily, to go to a singles night for fun, a giant ice ball nearly hits the island. Another similar ice ball had just nearly crushed the pigs and their leader, King Leonard (Bill Hader) is having a fit. Leonard inadvertently triggers even more of Red’s insecurity by begging the Birds for a truce so that he can try to convince the Bird’s to team with the pigs to battle whatever is sending the ice balls. But all Red can think of is what he might lose if he isn’t defending Bird Island from the pigs. 


The ice balls are coming from an icy island somewhere in between the Pigs and Birds. The ice island is populated by Eagles and their leader, Zeta, wants off the island in the worst way. She wants to use the ice balls to run off the Birds and Pigs so she can take their islands for herself, her daughter, Courtney (Awkwafina), and all of Eagle kind. Zeta also has a long history with Mighty Eagle (Peter Dinklage), the fake hero of bird island. 


Will the pigs and birds be able to work together long enough to stop Zeta from destroying their islands or will her strange technology that captures lava inside of ice destroy both islands. If you think that is going to be a genuine question filled with any real tension then you are expecting too much of a silly, kids animated movie. The point isn’t plot in Angry Birds 2, it’s gags and the gags are, for the most part, quite funny. 


The creators of Angry Birds 2, director Thurop Van Orman and writers Peter Ackerman and Eyall Podell, have packed Angry Birds 2 with a lot of good natured laughs and big comic set pieces and most of those work. They are not reinventing the genre or anything but they do enough to get consistent laughs out of a property that for all intents should not be as winning and enjoyable it is. 


On top of the laughs, I became legitimately invested in Red’s identity crisis. No joke, Jason Sudeikis and the writers of Angry Birds 2 actually made me care about Red’s crisis, his deep insecurity. It is not something the movie lays on thick, but it is woven well into the story. Red doesn’t want to go back to being forgotten, bullied or looked down upon. The first film chronicled his unlikely hero status and Angry Birds 2 takes care to address how that story is playing out in the wake. 


Of course movie sequels should pick up story threads from their predecessors but given the episodic nature of so many franchises would anyone have noticed that Angry Birds, of all things, had let a few story threads fall away? It’s almost brave that anyone thought we cared enough about the first film to remember the plot, to have the nerve to make the repercussions of that plot central to the main character’s story in Angry Birds 2 is an impressive bit of continuity. 


As I said earlier, this isn’t rocket science and the makers of Angry Birds 2 are not reimagining the genre or anything. Instead, they’ve simply taken care to make a movie they can be proud of. It’s a movie that could have been given to many creative teams who might have slapped together some lowbrow, childish gags and market ready tie-ins for videogames or toys and called it a day. 


This team however, appeared to actually care about their work. They crafted this story. They took care in casting the voice cast, which also includes Angry Birds newcomers Rachel Bloom as Red’s love interest, This is Us superstar Sterling K Brown and Leslie Jones as a fantastically silly villain. The team behind Angry Birds 2 had every expectation that they would take the easy road to an easy paycheck and instead they made a genuinely funny and compelling sequel that surpasses the original. 


Movie Review Dora and the Lost City of Gold

Dora and the Lost City of Gold is a strange movie. This adaptation of the famed cartoon series, Dora the Explorer, attempts to bridge the gap from the toddler-centric cartoon to a modern day adventure aimed at tweens and young teens. That this bridge turns out to be rather solid is quite a welcome surprise. Dora and the Lost City of Gold isn’t exactly a mind-blowing cinematic experience but it is modestly entertaining and inoffensively fun. 


Dora (Isabella Moner) grew up in the jungle with a monkey for a best friend and a backpack and a map as her toys. Fearless and curious, Dora from an early age explored every inch of jungle she could. Dora’s parents, Cole (Michael Pena) and Elena (Eva Longoria), are explorers who live to discover hidden places in the world. Distinctively however, Cole and Elena are explorers and not treasure hunters. 


Cole and Elena instill in Dora a deep respect for not disturbing the places they explore but experiencing them as they are. This is a rare attitude unfortunately, as most people in the business of being in the jungle, do so for profit and glory. Dora shares her parents’ love of history and learning and her curiosity drives her to take risks, risks that unfortunately lead mom and dad to worry for her safety.


Mom and Dad are on the verge of discovering the Lost City of Gold, the Incan legend about an unimaginable treasure. They are ready to go and explore this hidden treasure but when Dora nearly breaks herself in half trying to find one more clue for them, they decide that the trip is just too dangerous for her. Dora will have to go to America and stay with her aunt, uncle and her cousin, Diego (Jeff Wahlberg). 


Diego’s parents used to live and work and explore in the jungle just like Cole and Elena. This led to Dora and Diego growing up as best friends, going on imaginary adventure together with Boots The Monkey (voice of Dany Trejo), a talking Map and Dora’s animated backpack always filled with exactly the tool that they need. That was 10 years ago however, when Diego’s parents moved to California. 


Today, Diego is as much a city kid as anyone at his High School. He has memories of his cousin Dora, but High School has made him anxious, cynical and self-involved, the antithesis of the bright, cheerful and eager to please Dora. The best friends reunion that Dora hoped for doesn’t go as planned, nor does her first days in High School where she’s picked on, mocked and struggles to fit in. This doesn’t deter Dora from being her cheerful self, but it is troubling for her. 


Then, the plot truly kicks in. Dora’s parents go missing during their search for the Lost City of Gold and Dora is kidnapped along with Diego, and two classmates, Randy (Nicholas Coombe) and Sammie (Madeleine Madden), during a school field trip. The kidnappers want Dora to lead them to her parents and the trail to the Lost City of Gold. When they arrive back in the jungle however, a friend of Dora’s parents, Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez) is there for the rescue. He along with Dora and the gang will have to find Dora’s parents before the kidnappers do in order to survive this adventure.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold was written by Nicholas Stoller of Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Neighbors fame and it is quite a departure for him. His wheelhouse is clearly raunchy comedy but, don’t forget, he was also producer on the most recent Muppet Movies, The Muppets and Muppets Most Wanted so kids movies with an edge are not all that much of a stretch for Stoller. Not that there is much edge at all to Dora, but there is some experimentation. 


Dora and the Lost City of Gold was directed by James Bobin who worked with Stoller on Muppets Most Wanted. In that movie, Stoller and Bobin used irreverent references to classic movies to tell the story of The Muppets in a fashion that bridged the gap between the target kid audience and an audience of nostalgic adults. Here, they employ a similar style, if similar is the right word for the direct lifting of entire scenes from the Indiana Jones canon. 


The ending of Dora and the Lost City of Gold borders on being a shot for shot remake of the ending of Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. It’s barely even heightened with the main difference being that the bad guy in Dora doesn’t die horrifically on screen. If you’re wondering why I haven’t issued a spoiler alert because I just talked about the ending, trust me when I say I haven’t spoiled anything. Dora and The Lost City of Gold is not a movie that gets its appeal from its plot.


So, did I enjoy Dora and the Lost City of Gold? Yes, for the most part. After I got over the fact that I was watching an adaptation of Dora the Explorer, I did legitimately find myself enjoying much of Lost City of Gold. Young Isabelle Moner is a fine young actress whose enthusiasm is rather infectious. She and the rest of the teenage cast are fun to watch, they appear to be having a great time making this movie and that feeling comes through the screen. 


That said, it’s not all great. For one thing, I would be very pleased to never see Eugenio Derbez on the big screen again. Derbez’s comic style is basically being as clueless and obnoxious as possible. It’s a style that is akin to fingernails on a chalkboard for me but I could see where kids might enjoy his clownish behavior. That’s the nicest thing I can say about Derbez, he’s a giant goof that children may laugh at because they don’t know any better. 


Derbez aside, it's rather improbable given its unique origin but, Dora and the Lost City of Gold is a movie I recommend. Dora is fun enough, it's exciting enough, it has just enough laughs and fourth wall breaking fun. I never would have expected it but I am actually recommending Dora and the Lost City of Gold. That's with the caveat that it is not for all audiences, this is a kids movie, but it is a solid, inoffensive, good natured kids movie that parents won't hate. 


Movie Review Fast and Furious Presents Hobbs and Shaw

Fast and Furious Presents Hobbs and Shaw is as silly and nonsensical as a Fast and the Furious offshoot should be. The film is a blanket of utter nonsense from beginning to end. Little, if anything matters about this movie and that’s how it should be. Dwayne ‘The Rock'' Johnson doesn’t make movies that are deep or meaningful , he makes popcorn for a living and this is some tasty popcorn, soaked in fatty, bad for you real butter. 


The Hobbs and Shaw of the title, for those who don’t follow the Fast and Furious franchise,  are Luke Hobbs (Johnson) and Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham). The two have been enemies and they’ve been reluctant allies alongside Vin Diesel’s Dominic Torretto. Now, they are partners in saving the world with Shaw’s equally capable and ass-kicking sister, Hattie (Vanessa Shaw) making sure the world saving gets done despite Hobbs and Shaw’s ego contest. 


The big bad world ender in Fast and Furious Presents Hobbs and Shaw is Brixton aka ‘Black Superman,’ that’s an unofficial nickname. Brixton is played by Idris Elba, a man who looks legitimately like the one guy who could, with many cybernetic enhancements, fight both The Rock and Jason Statham. Elba is a heavyweight movie star presence in Fast and Furious Presents Hobbs and Shaw and his presence is enough to make me forgive the fact that I have no memory of what his nefarious, world ending plan is. 


Legit, I cannot be forced to remember what it is that Brixton is fighting for other than the fact that most of the population of the planet has to die for Brixton to reach the goal set for him by an unseen presence whose voice gives Brixton vague directions. I sound critical but I am a major fan of the Fast and the Furious fan and I can’t remember the plot of any of the Fast and Furious movies either.


Plot and the mechanics of such are not remotely important as set pieces in a Fast and the Furious movie. The important thing about these movies and for director David Leitch (John Wick, Atomic Blonde) is to have big, banging, entertaining action set pieces and Hobbs and Shaw delivers with a series of well choreographed fights and well constructed, CG enhanced action scenes that combine silliness with ambition and subtracts brains. 


A London set chase scene is a standout with Statham’s Shaw racing, Fast and the Furious style, through the streets with Idris Elba’s baddie chasing him down on a massively modified motorcycle that defies space and time to do anything Elba demands of it. I am pretty sure it flattened to the size of a piece of paper ala a Looney Tunes cartoon physics vehicle at one point. That’s the level of silly we are playing here, legit Looney Tunes, cartoon physics. 


That’s only part of the fun of Hobbs and Shaw however as we also get really well choreographed fight sequences that feel real and practical. Vanessa Kirby gets into a fight with The Rock briefly that is quite fun. Kirby also gets to beat up a number of henchmen throughout and look cool doing it. Kirby has star presence and shines even amid the boys club of Rock and Statham. Rock and Statham are each quite generous in helping her get over with the audience but she’s doing the work. 

I also really enjoyed the sequence seen in most of the film’s trailers with Statham using his mad fighting skills against a series of karate henchmen while Rock beats up one big guy and then mocks Statham while waiting for him to finish off 12 guys. It’s a funny scene in the trailer and it works just as well in the movie. Rock and Statham have a terrific adversarial chemistry, as they’d shown in their previous Fast and the Furious showdowns. 


Fast and Furious Presents Hobbs and Shaw does have some issues, it’s far from a perfect movie even as a big silly action movie. The biggest problem is a particular cameo from one Dwayne The Rock Johnson’s friends that lengthens the movie by a solid 15 minutes. This extra length might not be a problem if the endless riffing gags with this character were funny but they are not funny. The scenes featuring this cameo performance are deathly long, boring and unnecessary. 


That however, is my biggest criticism of this movie. Otherwise, Fast and Furious Presents Hobbs and Shaw is just as silly, over the top and fun as any of the Fast and the Furious movies on their own. The cartoon physics, the unsubtle characters and unintended and intended humor is all there and it is all a great deal of fun. I greatly enjoyed Fast and Furious Presents Hobbs and Shaw even as I recognize all of the many things wrong with it. The film succeeds on being ambitious nonsense and if you accept it on those terms, the film is so much fun.