When we last left human killing machine John Wick (Keanu Reeves) he was on the run. He had just committed the cardinal sin in this world of professional hired guns — killing a protected man on safe ground. As a result, The High Table, which governs this ordered realm of trained assassins, has excommunicated Mr. Wick and placed a $15 million dollar bounty on his head. John is desperate for an exit and leans on old pals (Angelica Huston, Halle Berry) before coming home once again to face off against all the gun-toting wrath The High Table can offer.
Plenty of Hollywood action movies can elicit cheers and thrills, and John Wick 3 is definitely in that mix, but what sets it apart is the sheer number of “Oooo”s, “Oww”s, and, “Holy shit”s. Most other action movies have one or two moments that make you wince or make you shake your head in astonishment of something intense, gnarly, or self-evidently awesome. John Wick 3 is packed with these moments. There are numerous examples just in the opening action sequence. There’s one long extended fight where John uses whatever is at his disposal, including knives and shards of broken glass and mirror, to take down his mounting enemies, and then he pulls these deadly projectiles out of their bodies to use again in a pinch. By the end of this action sequence, my preview audience burst into applause. I can’t think of another movie where this happened especially in Act One. The movie has lots of standout action sequences and the good sense to let the audience enjoy the disciplined, imaginative fight choreography in full with long expansive takes. There are moments that are just incredible to witness, like John Wick utilizing a kicking horse to his advantage, or seeing the full take-down effect of whirling attack dogs in combat, and a two-on-one fight where every glass cage in sight must be smashed to bits. For action fans, the John Wick series is a simplified adrenaline shot where the director and star are working in unison to compose goose bump-triggering action cinema for the masses.
Another hallmark of the series is its sense of macabre humor and the world building peculiarities. Amidst the wild carnage and bloodshed, there are moments that shocked me with how funny they were. I was almost in tears toward one baffling moment toward the very end. I loved that the chief antagonist, a samurai sword-wielding Zero (Mark Dacascos), can also be a fanboy. During a rare moment of downtime, he gets to gush and freak out that he’s actually interacting with the John Wick. There’s a new character played by Asia Kate Dillion (TV’s Billions, Orange is the New Black) who behaves like a peeved middle manager trying to get back on the next red-eye home. She’s the best new addition in Chapter Three. Don’t expect much from high-profile new faces like Angelica Huston and Halle Berry as their screen time is brokered into short segments. There’s a sequence where John combats trained soldiers in body armor, and so he has to constantly be reloading because it takes multiple precise shots to down the bad guys. It’s a smart way to escalate the stakes of the scene while staying true to its world, because who wouldn’t wear everything and the kitchen sink when being tasked with killing John Wick? I laughed out loud when Wick returned to an armory perturbed that he had to reload so soon, muttering to himself in agitation.
The action is relentless and all kinds of fun to watch but the movie starts to lose its momentum by the conclusion. Part of this is by the sense of lowered emotional stakes in its finale (more on that below) and another factor is its general plot-less nature. The entire story of John Wick 3 is the title character trying to outrun the people set out to kill him, jumping from one supposed safe landing spot to another. This works for a frenetic sense of pacing, knowing that any lag time will be minimal before the next kickass brawl. Because the movie rarely catches its collective breath, it can also feel like a mindless video game, with each new location a new level and with innumerable, faceless cohorts rushing in to be battled. The violence can be brutal but also feel a bit programmed, lacking some of the visceral dynamic realism of The Raid movies, the closest equivalent action franchise I can think of. There’s nothing here that challenges the brilliant set pieces and organic complications from the last Mission: Impossible movie. It’s a fun action franchise but it runs the risk of resting on its (considerable) laurels, feeling too same-y, and that can prove deadly. The clever fight choreography, sense of humor, and conviction of Reeves does enough to mask the negative effects of this artistic choice. This may affect people differently especially fans of the series, as lavishly produced action can be rewarding enough to ignore other pressing faults. For me, I was feeling as gassed as John Wick by the end.
The further and further we get from the events of the original John Wick, the less emotional involvement the series seems to ingratiate, especially with its central baddies onscreen. Every dog-loving audience member was wiling Wick to get his vengeance in the first movie. We wanted him to get the bad guy in the sequel. Now it’s basically wave after wave of hired guns that he has to defeat, and without a better connection to that opposing force, the movie franchise runs the risk of losing any longstanding personal stakes. The bad guys are just interchangeable and only present to be dispatched. There’s no emotional victory or satisfaction for the audience if Bad Guy #12 gets toppled by the climax. The John Wick franchise is magnifying this accelerating problem; by making the conflict carry over into an additional movie, and now into another additional movie, the audience is getting further and further distance from the origin of this conflict, and thus its resolution becomes less of a desirable and satisfying goal and more a perfunctory endpoint. I would recommend the John Wick team review 2008’s Quantum of Solace to see a recent example of a big action movie hampered by overextending a thin storyline.
If you’re coming to John Wick 3 for another heaping of high-quality action, you won’t leave disappointed on that front. If you’re looking for signature moves, dark humor, and lots and lots of casual headshots, then you won’t leave disappointed. If you’re looking for a thrilling good time at the movies, you won’t leave disappointed. As a fan of the series, this was the movie I was wanting from the first sequel, dealing with the larger consequences of his rule-breaking life-and-death decision. As the third act ramped up for John Wick 3, I turned to my friend and said, “If this was the second movie, it would end right here.” Perhaps if you watch John Wick 2 and the third movie in short succession some of the problems would be smoothed out, namely a depleted sense of personal stakes and too little plot stretched over multiple movies and counting. I’ll happily continue watching further adventures of John Wick, though I’d be just as interested in an exploration of the world without its titular star. At some point it may be necessary to retire John Wick (Reeves seems to have lost a step, but he’s still like a hundred steps beyond most of us) and when they do, I hope this interesting and peculiar world is allowed to house further weird and exciting adventures. In the meantime, John Wick 3 will more than delight those action urges and sate the action appetites of its fans.
Nate’s Grade: B
Coming off the cataclysm of Avengers: Infinity War, Marvel’s latest serves as a palate cleanser, a breezy and light-hearted comic adventure with little more on its mind than having fun with its possibilities and leaving the audience happy. The basic premise of a team of thieves that can shrink or expand at will calls for a light touch, and returning director Peyton Reed (Bring it On) and his team have a strong idea of what an Ant-Man movie should be. Ant-Man and the Wasp won’t blow anyone away with its story or characters but it hits a sweet spot of silly comic affability that kept me smiling.
Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is close to ending his two-year house arrest following the events of the Berlin brawl in Captain America: Civil War. His old partner Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lily) a.k.a. the Wasp is working with her scientist father, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), to discover the location of the missing Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), lost for decades in the subatomic quantum realm. They need Scott’s help to steal the final parts necessary to complete their quantum field transporter. There are other forces looking to make use of Hank Pym’s technology, namely Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), a woman who can phase through matter, and an unscrupulous local buyer (Walton Goggins) looking to profit. With the help of the Wasp, Scott Lang must protect his friends and allies so they can rescue Janet Van Dyne before she’s lost for good, and he cannot be caught before his house arrest period comes to an end or he’ll go to jail.
When any action movie has unique circumstances, especially those in the superhero realm because of their unique powers, I crave the proper development of the concept and the action sequences to make clever and imaginative use of their available tools. If you have characters that can shrink, that can make other objects big or small, and there’s a villain that can phase, then I expect a thorough and fun implementation of these elements to separate the movie from others. It takes a while to get going, but once the streamlined exposition is behind us, including multiple instances of explaining the plot to the audience, Ant-Man and the Wasp zips by on its sheer sense of sprightly whimsy and visual wonder. Paul Rudd (Wet Hot American Summer) is still as effortlessly charming as ever and elevates every scene partner. When it’s moving, the film does a fine job at entertaining, with funny quips and charming actors and visual panache. When it slows things down to explain or introduce perfunctory characters (looking at you, Laurence Fishburne) that’s when it becomes less than mighty. Ant-Man and the Wasp kept me laughing throughout, especially with the triumphant return of series MVP Michael Pena (CHIPs) as the energetic, motor-mouthed Luis. There are enjoyable payoffs strewn throughout and solid comic asides. It doesn’t feel too jokey to the point that nobody involved cares. It feels like everyone is united with the same mission statement.
The final act in particular is a blast, as now we have our MacGuffin and all of the various teams vying for it in an elaborate series of chase scenes. The cars are racing back and forth, under and over one another, with characters constantly jockeying for top position. It’s an exciting flourish to a conclusion, and every time a car went tiny for a split-second escape, or an ordinary item like a Pez dispenser went huge to form an obstacle, I grew happier and happier. The screenwriters unleashed a flurry of fun and zippy action ideas. Some will balk at the lower level of stakes in the Ant-Man films, or their general aw-shucks silly charm, but I view both as a virtue. Just because it’s a superhero movie doesn’t mean there can’t be a healthy degree of amusement, if properly executed and applied.
The villains are kept interesting enough, through concept or casting. With Ghost, here’s another character that can manipulate matter to her advantage. Her back-story is pretty ordinary (science experiment, looking for way to end pain/save her life) and kept mostly uncomplicated, as her plan is a matter of life and death. Hannah John-Kamen (Ready Player One) has a terrific look and physicality to her, but she’s lacking anything really memorable to do as a performer. Her character has some cool moves but that’s all. It feels like more could have been done with this antagonist. Then there’s genteel local criminal Sonny Burch who is given great gusto by Walton Goggins (The Hateful Eight). It’s like he simply plugged his Justified character’s smooth charisma. He’s a gentleman robber who has just enough self-awareness to acknowledge the absurd. A highlight of the film is an exchange between Goggins and Pena. He’s so good in such a relatively throwaway criminal role that I wish Marvel had saved Goggins for something grander down the line, something to really let his charisma seep into his wild, anarchic energy below the surface.
With all that said, the events involving the rescue of Janet Van Dyne are the weakest parts of the movie, and this saps the other Van Dyne characters as well. I just found myself caring very little for this excursion into the quantum realm, especially when we have fancy heists and opponents who can walk through walls. I understand the importance the rescue mission has with the other characters, but it didn’t feel that important to me. I was more invested in Scott’s ever-increasing near misses being caught breaking his house arrest, which was days away from being lifted by the FBI. Those scenes gave me the delightful Randall Park too (TV’s Fresh Off the Boat). Maybe it’s a casualty of the film’s genial tone, but I think the real culprit why I found myself unmoved is that the Janet rescue is the core storyline attached to Hope and Hank. Beforehand, Hank Pym served as a grumpy mentor figure for Scott, and now he’s mostly complaining about Scott’s exploits and how they invariably jeopardize the retrieval of his wife. Hope gets her spotlight, and name in the title, as Wasp, but she too is saddled with the same humdrum boring material. Lily (The Hobbit films) goes from scene to scene with a cloud of pinched annoyance. They’ve taken two characters who were more interesting in the first film, sanded off things that made them interesting, and bumped up their screen time, which is not a great formula. Everyone seems so irritable around this plotline, and when you haven’t invested much in it, that irritation becomes dangerously off-putting.
If you’re looking for silly, lighthearted escapism, Ant-Man and the Wasp is a superhero flick with entertainment as its top priority and enough infectious fun to achieve its more modest goal. It doesn’t follow the heist formula of the first film but it still finds room for comic asides and stacking payoffs for a lively, inventive final act. It’s definitely a lesser movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) but you need adventures in lower stakes too, especially after twenty movies and counting. Ant-Man and the Wasp could have used some fine-tuning and tightening, especially in its second act, and the quantum stuff definitely didn’t register for me, but it’s a mostly fun and acceptable summer escapade.
Nate’s Grade: B
Reading the raft of reviews for director Morten Tyldum ‘s (The Imitation Game) new sci-fi movie Passengers, you would think the movie must have killed somebody’s mother. The resoundingly negative press stems from a an early plot development that critics have decried as offensive, disgusting, misguided, misogynist, and even “Titanic in space.” After having seen this controversial film, I feel like some of the moral outrage is overblown, or at least purposely ignoring complexities and context. Passengers is a movie that makes you think and feel and my feelings were more than billious invective.
Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is a passenger onboard the Avalon spaceship as it hurtles across the galaxy toward the colony of Homestead II. It’s a gigantic, sleek, and powerful vessel and the trip is expected to last 120 years. Except Jim was awakened early. 90 years too early. His hibernation pod short-circuited and he’s unable to go back to sleep. He’s destined to live out his life and die alone before any of the approximately 5,000 other passengers awakens. The Avalon is large and lonely, save for a handful of robotic and holographic guides, notably an android bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen) who advises Jim to accept his circumstances and find enjoyment. One year later, binging on exotic food, playing video games for hours, and living without rules has lost its appeal enough that Jim is considering suicide. Then he sees the sleeping face of Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) and is awestruck. She’s beautiful but she symbolizes more. She’s a journalist and he reads all of her works, admiring her courage, sense of humor, ambitions, and determination. He feels like he’s falling for her and wishes she were awake. Jim asks Arthur, “What if you were stranded on a desert island and had the power to wish somebody else there? You wouldn’t be alone anymore but you’d be stranding them.” Arthur’s response: “Jim, these are not robot questions.” Jim decides to purposely wake Aurora, because if he didn’t there wouldn’t be much of a movie left. He hides his culpability and welcomes her to this new grim reality and they find solace with one another. The truth hovers over their heads but it’s not the only danger for Jim. The Avalon is experiencing a wealth of small technical glitches that cascade into bigger problems. If Jim and Aurora don’t stumble upon an answer, all 5,000 people onboard could perish far from home.
While far from flawless, Passengers has plenty at play to engage an audience on different levels, be they intellectual, ethical, or science fiction thrills. The premise is strong from the first minute onward and screenwriter Jon Spaihts (Prometheus, Doctor Strange) has an astonishingly imagintive command of world building. The first act is one of discovery for Jim and the audience, and Spaihts provides plenty to discover that fits within the logical future. Jim sends out a video recording asking for help and then learns it will take 18 years to be sent to Earth and another 30 years to get the answer. It’s a nice moment that brings some science smarts to the proceedings. Colony planets are the next big corporate venture, and I appreciated the little touches that made this future world feel all the more plausible and authentic. Jim is a lower-class skilled laborer and will owe a percentage of his life’s earnings to pay for the voyage (sound familiar?). There’s also a class system alive and well, as Jim is denied the more delicious food and beverage breakfast items because he is not a Gold Star passenger. Beyond these little touches, Spaihts delivers a remarkably efficient story structure. The emphasis shifts in half-hour segments just long enough to fulfill a plot purpose before moving on to a natural transition. The rich contours of the Avalon are explored with plenty of built-in mysteries like what’s on the other side of the crew door. It’s a story implanted with strong mystery elements to smoothly guide the intrigue of an audience. The small scenes open up to wider scenes, and every set on the Avalon fulfills a purpose either emotionally or with suspense. I was definitely hooked and wanted to learn more about the ins and outs of this brave new world. Tyldum impresses with how easily he translates his visual prowess into the realm of large-scale science fiction. The set design by Guy Hendrix Dyas (Inception) is immaculate and had me begging to visit as many locations as possible aboard the Avalon. The many designs are more than just clean, sterile surfaces; there’s craftsmanship and personality in the rococo symmetry. I also greatly enjoyed the very intentional Shining visual motif of Arthur’s red velvet bar.
The film’s selling point is the relationship between its mega-watt stars, and Pratt (The Magnificent Seven) and Lawrence (Joy) deliver on their end. You could do far worse than spend 90 years with some of Hollywood’s most effortlessly charming, gorgeous, and self-effacing actors. Pratt and Lawrence seem to exist on a similar goofy yet spirited plane, and it works toward their eventual courtship. There’s a cute scene where Jim quizzes Aurora on her observational reasoning, guessing real aspects about several sleeping passengers. Jim is a man who feels out of place on Earth, looking to build anew, and Aurora is looking for an adventure worthy of a great story to equal her famous father’s literary works. It’s a fascinating question of whether a person would willingly jump forward in time 250 years, as Aurora plans to when she returns to Earth (if there still is an Earth). You’d be severing all tethers to human relationships from your past and also the world as you conceived. The characters aren’t the most in depth, and “Aurora Lane” is definitely a name that’s one step removed from being downright Jetsonian, but it’s the exceptional situation that makes them compelling to watch. How does one court the only other waking human being on a ship of thousands? What if Aurora happened to be gay? It’s a Last Man on Earth scenario that has been explored many times on TV and the big screen but there’s still something inherently interesting about the premise. I also enjoyed the care they build for their only other companion, Arthur the loyal bartender and confidant.
Whether you see the movie as a parable about the horrible things people do when confronted with despair or as a fantasy for unchecked misogyny will depend upon if you view the problematic relationship as morally wrong but potentially empathetic or only irredeemably creepy. “You murderer!” Aurora accuses Jim when she discovers the awful truth, and she’s right. Jim has robbed her of a future and taken away her choice. I like to consider myself a relatively enlightened and progressive chap but I’ll admit I that I can only see things through my own white heterosexual male lens, so your mileage may vary. When Jim falls in love with Aurora from researching her background and pouring over every word she’s written in print, this may be the telltale sign for an audience. If you view it as a more heightened equivalent to falling in love through correspondence, an unrequited love fueled by missed chances, then perhaps you’ll still be onboard. However, if you view Jim’s love as the equivalent of falling in love with a coma patient (Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her?) and projecting feelings onto an unresponsive woman without agency, then this is a romantic paean that you’ll associate more with a horror movie.
There are several great and touching one-sided romances in the annuls of film, and I viewed Passengers as a higher concept rom-com where the misguided man (it’s usually the man) is hiding a secret about the murky circumstances surrounding the start of their relationship (like a She’s All That in space). That’s a fairly cheeky assessment of what could also effectively be dubbed a Stockholm syndrome romance, as Jim is the one responsible for kidnapping her from her planned future. I’ve read lots of ink from critics decrying this movie as an offensive, deeply flawed film. I think Passengers effectively communicates the full implications of Jim’s choice. It wants us to wade into that ethically troublesome pool with Jim. It doesn’t pretend he’s the good guy, though that judgment can be read too easily. It says Jim is a human being in a unique setting and that he made a selfish choice. There’s a complexity there I think is going ignored in a rush to moral indignation. I honestly think most people if given similar circumstances would make the same selfish decision. That’s not a lazy excuse but it is empathy, and empathy does not require comprehensive endorsement to still exist in some form or other.
With that being said, the movie certainly stacks the deck in Jim’s favor for some sort of redemption and/or forgiveness. The very fact that we have an actor as handsome and charismatic as Pratt shows the movie’s intentions. It’s not like Steve Buscemi was the one who woke up Jennifer Lawrence, and now that I’ve just written that sentence I’d be seriously interested to see that version of this story. I think that audience sympathies might be different for a more ordinary, homely man awakening a woman who, by conventional dating standards, would be out of his league on any planet. I think an audience might be more apt to interpret a lecherous angle to Jim’s actions if the part wasn’t so young and generally appealing. The opening act is the Cast Away section of the story that follows Jim’s discovery and isolation for a solid year, and it does much to engender good will for an audience, enough that his actions waking up Aurora force us as well into the uncomfortable ethical muck. “He was a drowning man, and he’ll grab onto anyone to save himself if he could,” is the only real overt effort at approaching apology.
This premise is strong enough that different angles could have been explored. What if we only spent the opening ten minutes establishing Jim and his life on the Avalon? The awakening of a second passenger would serve as the inciting incident but the movie would purposely hide behind the plausible theory that she woke up by accident, by the same mysterious malfunction that Jim will relate. It would also provide a longer period of time for Jim and Aurora to develop together. Then the Act Two midpoint would be the reveal of Jim’s involvement and the fact that he had been awake far longer than he initially told her, perhaps with the original opening half-hour cut down to a few impressionistic flashback bits to communicate the stark loneliness and desperation. We would be just as shocked as Aurora. It’s here that the movie could completely become a horror movie, with Jim chasing her down through the empty space station. Maybe she even finds a locker with other women he woke up that were then murdered because they too found out too much. Then she has to take him down or else he will keep repeating this murderous behavior until he gets his perfectly submissive Eve. Admittedly, that takes the movie in an entirely different, albeit still interesting, tonal direction.
Passengers seems to bounce back and forth between existential horror movie and broadly romantic soap opera. It doesn’t always mix but I enjoyed the collision of ideas, tones, ethics, and discomfort, at least before it rumbles into a third act that becomes a series of life-and-death action set pieces. It’s not that Passengers goes slack in its final act; the visuals are consistently engaging as the spaceship shuts down piece by piece. When the gravity goes, Aurora’s swimming pool water becomes a floating prison, endangering her life. It’s a terrific moment even if it only serves as momentary suspense. There was always something to keep my interest with Passengers, from the world itself to the mysteries to the ever-changing script to waiting for the awful truth to finally hit about Jim’s misdeeds. Ultimately your opinion of this movie will be entirely based upon your view of how the movie handles Jim’s decision and its aftermath. You may view the movie as a fiendish masculine fantasy that strips away a woman’s right to consent or as an empathetically challenging, morally dubious drama with a relatably selfish choice that requires real consequences and introspection. Pratt and Lawrence are winning actors even if they might not make the most winning couple. Passengers is engaging science fiction made with pristine technical care and a smart screenplay that layers mysteries worth unwrapping. I hope more audience members decide for themselves rather than turning up their noses thanks to the staunchly negative critical reviews reeling with offense. There’s more here than given credit and I feel Passengers is a journey worth taking for fans of large canvas science fiction that still demand a personable entry point.
Nate’s Grade: B
For the germophobes amongst us, you probably want to skip seeing the new thriller, Contagion. Like for life. Never see this film if you’re the type that needs a paper toilet seat cover before sitting down to do their business. Contagion is a movie that makes you reevaluate basic human interaction. You may not leave the house again without covering yourself in plastic and a year’s worth of Purel. Director Stephen Soderbergh (Che, Ocean’s Thirteen) has assembled an all-star cast to drop like flies like only Hollywood’s most talented can do. Contagion is an intelligent, unnerving, technically authentic thriller that will make you cringe just watching people cough.
Contagion’s main character is a virus that begins its origin in a Hong Kong casino and quickly spreads from there. A British model takes it to the UK, a Chinese waiter goes home infected, a Japanese businessman keels over dead on a return trip home, and Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) comes home from her business tripe back to Minneapolis and goes into seizures. The next day, she’s dead and soon after having her brain dug out for an autopsy. The spooked docs alert the Centers for Disease Control immediately; something is definitely wrong with Paltrow’s brain (insert Coldplay joke here). The head of the CDC, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), and his specialists track the expansion of the virus. He dispatches Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), to Minnesota to coordinate inter-agency action and interview Beth’s husband (Matt Damon), who appears to be immune to the virus. He’s in shock and isolated from his remaining daughter. He’s still trying to make sense of how quickly everything fell apart for his family. Capitalizing on fear, anti-establishment medical blogger Alan Krumweid (Jude Law) steers a panicked public toward a homeopathic medical alternative that he just so happens to have a financial stake with. The World Health Organization sends Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) to investigate the Hong Kong casino and overview hours of security footage to glean the origins of the virus. But she, like others, soon find themselves in ever-increasing danger as the world races against time to beat this new threat.
For those expecting an action-thriller with plenty of doctors barking moral quandaries and racing against time to escape government agents… you will be sorely disappointed. Contagion is much more cerebral, cool, like a scientific procedural that plays the premise out in a realistic fashion, which means it’s often short the fireworks that mainstream audiences have come to expect from disaster movies. The CDC is really the main setting as they try and determine the origin of the virus, breaking down the virus, and projecting its rate on infection and contamination. Soderbergh has onscreen titles indicating how large the population centers are for the plot settings, reminding us simply with text how vulnerable to danger all those people are. The real pleasure of the film is watching A-level Oscar actors puzzle out how to solve this multi-faceted crisis. The movie does a minimal amount of explanation and expects an audience to be able to keep up with its scientific analysis. Soderbergh’s film is much more in keeping with The Andromeda Strain than Outbreak (find that monkey and all will be happy again!). You witness smart people doing smart things and still making little traction. This isn’t necessarily Irwin Allen territory of disaster. It’s a disaster that seems all too reasonably possible rather than being trapped in the belly of a ship that has turned upside down. Getting sick is a lot harder to avoid especially in our modern world. Globalization has done many wonders for the world, but by making the world a smaller place it also means that we’re all much more susceptible to the spreads of pandemics. No longer can geography be held as a total defense. We’re all one flight away from the spread of the next great illness (as the end credits to Rise of the Planet of the Apes also remind).
Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (The Informant!) cast a wide net all over the world to see the ramifications of crisis. Things go rather quickly. By the end of the first week, the CDC is coordinating its resources and media strategy to not inflame panic. Easier said than done when ignorance and fear are in large quantities. The reaction to the news, the intra-government squabbles over resources and money, the exploitation of fear by opportune business types, the rising resentment of those left out of the loop, and even the kidnapping schemes for those known to have access to medicine. Contagion works because it gets the details right without losing track of the big picture. The film feels eerily plausible at every beat. Nurses are on strike refusing to be near the sick until uniform safety protocols are established. Funeral homes refuse to handle infected bodies out of health concerns. These are absorbing details that feel completely authentic yet would easily have been overlooked in other disaster pictures. The movie even addresses recent pandemic fears related to H1N1, SARS, and the perceived “overreaction” when these potential worldwide disasters turned out to be milder bugs. A government agent asks the head of the CDC if some terror organization could have weaponized the bird flu. “They don’t have to. The birds are already doing it,” the CDC head replies.
While Burns lies out a host of characters and scenarios with increasing tension as stakes mount and the death toll rises, Contagion just kind of drifts into an ending for the last 20 minutes. I was expecting another big wallop, some kind of sudden plot turn that reestablished an ongoing threat, but it wasn’t to be. The tension just sorts of lets out slowly like a balloon, playing against movie laws. That means that Contagion, wile tense, eschews a dramatic buildup for a climax. Burns and Soderbergh instead to play out their realistic “what if” experiment to its conclusion, which makes for a realistic if somewhat inert final act. There’s no chasing monkeys or butting with government agents willing to sacrifice infected town for “the good of mankind”; it’s just government employees doing good work and trying to minimize damages. It’s exciting to watch smart characters break down a nasty new virus and try to understand it and get ahead of it, but once they succeed, it’s not as exciting to watch the aftereffects of people getting better and returning to a normal existence (minus 30 million people on the planet – the solution to fixing unemployment?).
Because the emphasis is on the cross-sections of plot and scientific breakdown, the emotional connection to the characters is limited. There are a lot of famous faces that appear in this movie; even bit parts are taken up by the likes of Bryan Cranston (TV’s Breaking Bad), John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), Demetri Martin (Taking Woodstock), Enrico Colatoni (TV’s Veronica Mars). Damon (The Adjustment Bureau) is probably the closest thing the film has to an emotional center. He’s immune to the virus but he has to watch his family fall apart with the knowledge that his wife was Patient Zero. On top of that, he has to deal with the fact that she was cheating on him. That’s a healthy brew of emotions to confront in such a heightened situation, and Damon does a nice job of putting a human face to the mass tragedy. Winslet (The Reader) is superb as a CDC investigator, so duty-bound that even when she awakes to discover she has become infected she goes through protocol trying to investigate who serviced her room so that others will not share her fate. Law (Sherlock Holmes) is suitably sleazy as a moral relativist trying that uses his army of Internet followers to discredit the government’s response. Fishburne (Predators) has terrific poise as the man in charge of scrambling the response forces, keeping his cool, and being the public face of the government response until an all too human scandal tarnishes him. But perhaps the best performer is Jennifer Ehle (Pride and Glory, The King’s Speech). She plays one of the chief CDC scientists studying the virus and takes some extreme measures to test a potential vaccine. She has a scene with her sick father that is likely the most emotionally affecting moment in the film. Her sturdy determination even when most vulnerable is selfless.
Contagion is a smart by-the-book procedural thriller that may not be dramatic enough for audiences fed by Hollywood disaster films. The film is far more analytical and detail-oriented to its benefit and sometimes detraction. It’s got stars galore and some plenty of rising tension, but the film also follows a realistic blueprint toward a rapid world response to a new pandemic, which means that well-developed characterization is spared amidst all that fraught scientific lingo. As a result, Contagion feels more like a docu-drama than an amped-up Hollywood thriller with its finger firmly pressed upon American anxieties. Contagion is a bit overextended and data-heavy. It’s a stripped down indie in studio clothing. Soderbergh’s movie is a bit too lean and clinical to be fully satisfying and emotionally engaging, especially with its somewhat inert ending. It’ll sure make you look at free bowls of peanuts differently. And Gwyneth Paltrow’s skull.
Nate’s Grade: B
For a solid 45 minutes, Predators is a fairly good genre movie. No, it’s a very good genre movie. We snap awake in freefall with a ripped Adrien Brody. A group of deadly warriors from all cultures find themselves stranded in some strange jungle. For that 45-minutes of goodness, the assembled killers (and Topher Grace as a doctor?) try and piece together their circumstances while exploring the foreign terrain. It’s a setup straight out of the Twilight Zone catalogue. And then, at minute 46, they find out they’re on a game preserve planet for the notorious alien bounty hunters, the Predators. The characters get picked off one-by-one and the patient buildup unwinds in a familiar and depressing bloodbath. Predators will work as a quick fix of junk food, but it teased a promising alternative that never came to fruition. The action is bloody but listless. The plot twists are seen from miles away (Topher Grace as a doctor?) and after all that badass macho posturing, the end credits blast the song… “Long Tall Sally” by Little Richard? It’s the most bizarre element in a movie with killer space monsters in dreadlocks.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Glitzy, breezy, and 100 percent predictable, 21 is a simple con movie that goes through the motions with hyper realism. The most interesting part of the film, by far, is learning the systems that help these coeds fleece Vegas for thousands of dollars. In fact, the true story is far more interesting than this typical tale about a good kid who gets a big ego, pushes his true friends away, is humbled, and then learns a lesson while getting the girl too. What’s a MIT engineer want to go to Harvard med school for? And for that matter, you’re telling me there are no scholarships out there to brainy MIT students? Whatever the case, 21 will pass the time nicely without damaging your brain. The card games are ramped up with zooming camerawork and flashy special effects by director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde), but it’s all window dressing to an interesting story that was white washed into a bland but undeniably commercial movie. It’s a fine time but, like Vegas, will leave you empty in the end. Still, you could do worse than overly stylized con movies about math whiz card sharks.
Nate’s Grade: C+
It’s a familiar story and it may be predictable at every turn, but this movie shines when it comes to performances. Young Keke Parker plays the title super speller with equal parts fire, heartbreak, shyness, and pure glee. You easily fall in love with her and it makes her rise among the spelling ranks worth watching. Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett give stirring performances to compliment a strong cast. The new angle Akeelah has going for it is its urban education perspective, seeing Akeelah have to hide her smarts out of fear of her peers. The movie is fun, and Akeelah’s budding relationship with a fellow speller is cute as can be. Akeelah and the Bee is a smartly written and uplifting family film with a lot of heart and a dash of schmaltz. Look for “Booger” (a.k.a. Curtis Armstrong) as the inner city school principal that pins his hopes on Akeelah.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Few celebrities have had the intense flame-out Tom Cruise has experienced in a little over a year’s time. First there was the PDA-heavy relationship with Katie Holmes, never a wet tongue-kiss away from a camera. Then there was the couch aerobics on Oprah Winfrey’s set, bleating his over-the-top declarations of love like Roger Rabbit. This was followed by a series of testy interviews about his war of words on psychiatry and prescription drugs. Entertainment Weekly just ran a cover story asking, “Is Tom Cruise worth his paycheck?” He’s gone from Hollywood’s most bankable actor to a national punch line. To bring new life to Cruise’s spy series, he tapped TV mastermind J.J. Abrams to make his feature debut after Cruise churned through two seasons of spy series Alias DVDs. Abrams is a gifted franchise starter, first with Alias and then with Lost, and with Mission: Impossible III he does the best he can to erase the memory of Tom Cruise, daredevil of furniture.
Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is out of field work at the Impossible Mission Force, training recruits for the big time. He’s settled into a comfortable home life with Julia (Michelle Monaghan), a woman he’s blissfully engaged to be wed. Ethan’s happy home is disrupted when IMF needs his services. It seems one of his trainees (Keri Russell, Felicity goes badass) has been captured by an arms middleman Owen Davian (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a man that will get any deadly force to the right bidder. Hunt reluctantly goes back into the field, assembling a team that includes Luther (Ving Rhames), Zhen (Maggie Q, quite fetching), and pilot Declan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Their mission goes badly and Hunt is reprimanded for his cavalier actions. He’s determined to snag Owen and get justice. This leads to an incredibly stuffed game of cat-and-mouse, each jockeying for leverage. There’s some super powerful device called the “rabbit’s foot” that everyone wants but it’s not really important. What is important is that Owen is eager to strike back at Ethan’s most vulnerable point — harming Julia.
This movie is quite possibly one of the greatest TV adaptations of all time. No, not the Mission: Impossible series but Alias. Just like J.J. Abrams’ TV brainchild, this slick, propulsive caper puts a smart spin on familiar ground. We’ve got the flash-forward narrative trickery, the super gadgets, the undercover teamwork, the world-trotting sprawling vistas, and anchoring the whole thing with an emotional counterpoint, trying to lead a double, “normal” life and keeping your loved ones equally safe and in the dark. There’s a great scene in the middle of a mission where Ethan and Luther casually discuss the impossibilities of living a normal life given what they do. Luther warns that those close to you will only end up getting hurt, and by this point thanks to a startling, right-to-the-point opener with a gun to sweet Julia’s head, we know he’s right. That’s what makes the third go-round different: Abrams has injected some emotion into the darn thing. Ethan is pressed back into service and then becomes something of a knight in shining Kevlar, trying to save his beloved in the crossfire of international espionage. There are a handful of scenes between Cruise and Monaghan and they sell the emotional drama in tender quiet looks. As a result, the audience and Ethan are rooted to their seats beyond just the assembly line of pyrotechnics. Just like Alias (at least up until Season 3 when it jumped the shark with the long-lost sister). It’s like if True Lies was played straight and Tom Arnold was mercifully forgotten.
Ah, but what pyrotechnics they are. Things get heated with a trip to the Vatican and they literally do not let up, all the while raising the stakes by pulling Ethan’s home life closer to the danger of his job. You’ll be left breathless absorbing all the exhilarating action sequences, which to my best estimate are more than the first two flicks combined. The stunts are superbly death-defying. What makes action sequences so enjoyable, pay attention you Hollywood rubes, is when the stage is set and then we watch organic complications. Abrams has a tremendous feel for action and playfully extends virtuoso sequences of awesome carnage. An attack on a bridge is simply outstanding and gave me an overload of geeky joy. We’re given the tight, controlled setting, and then Abrams introduces the outside conflict and keeps developing it masterfully step by step. There’s air attacks, there’s running back and forth amongst the wreckage, there’s searching for guns while escaping attack, and then there’s flying leaps over gaping concrete holes. I was jumping in my seat with boyish glee. The slow-mo gun toss between Cruise and Russell? Awesome. The swing-shot jump off a gigantic skyscraper in Shanghai? Awesome. The use of Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) as gadget guru? Awesome. Mission: Impossible III is, if nothing else, an incredible adrenaline rush orchestrated by a man with a finger directly on the pulse of his audience. By summer popcorn standards, Mission: Impossible III is everything you could hope for. Sure it’s highly implausible but it’s just so damn fun.
Abrams has created quite a breakthrough for himself. Long regarded as a TV visionary for his tangled, engrossing pop-pulp like Alias and Lost, Abrams shows what he can do with a bazillion dollars and one of the world’s most recognized stars. Abrams intelligent, deft handling of his material, elevating tired genre devices with flash and reverence, reminds me of a young Steven Spielberg. This is a man that respects his material and respects his audience, but still knows how to bring home an entertaining movie. I’ve followed Abrams’ career since getting hooked on Alias in 2001, and I’m confident he will become the best friend a movie geek could ever have (Star Trek fans should be clicking their heels about Abrams’ rumored involvement). Even though Mission: Impossible III is Abrams’ film debut (and on record the most expensive ever for a first time film director) he already shows more command, more wit, and more hipness than most of Hollywood’s graying old guard.
Finally, this is the first Mission: Impossible film to utilize the team aspect of the TV show. Granted, Cruise still does most of the running, jumping, climbing trees, but thankfully this movie is more than the Tom Cruise Kicks Everyone in the Face Show a.k.a Mission: Impossible II. The supporting cast all have their one great moment and part of the fun is their interaction, seeing the pieces fit into place. Just like last summer’s Batman Begins I would like to see another movie immediately with everyone involved. Make it happen. This is the Mission: Impossible world I want to explore in greater detail.
Mission: Impossible III is not bulletproof. The movie seriously needed more time for its villain. Hoffman does a great job of bringing his bad man to grumpy life. He goes about business with a detached nonchalance, like a plumber fixing his 10,000th clog. It may sound silly but it works because Hoffman gives his character a lizardy, unscrupulous sense of ethics. He really will put a bullet between the eyes of anyone, possibly while reheating some food in his microwave. That’s the greatness of Hoffman’s villain, how ordinary he sees his line of work and what it calls him to do. Now, with such a terrific villain it would behoove Mission: Impossible III to give him plenty of screen time. Sadly, Hoffman has about three real scenes, and his end is anticlimactic and so is the film as a whole. And what does IMF have to do to curb moles? There’s been one in all three Mission: Impossible movies. Maybe they should offer better vacation plans.
Tom Cruise may have done a lot to wear out his welcome with the public but he knows to surround himself with good people. The decision to let J.J. Abrams helm Mission: Impossible III has finally given this franchise vision and sustained excitement. This movie is far more emotionally based than any other in the series and there’s a genuine emotional reason for all the fireworks this time. The team aspect is finally addressed and Hoffman makes a truly lecherous, scary villain. But the bread and butter of this flick are its breathless action sequences, brilliantly choreographed by Abrams, a name destined for even greater things. Abrams knows how to spin genre clichés into clever, loose, twisty, funny, thrilling, emotionally centered gold. I don’t care if Cruise abused a couch and the public’s good will; Mission: Impossible III is an extravagant popcorn movie and a great way to start the summer. If only they were all like this.
Nate’s Grade: B+
It seems that in American cinema, we have a long history of people being holed up in one location and fighting off outside forces. There’s instant drama in fending off forces that outnumber you, and Hollywood knows this. There are historical dramas (The Alamo), fantasy flicks (Lords of the Rings), and nearly every other horror movie (Night of the Living Dead) that have a central conceit of the good guys being outnumbered and with no place to go. Assault on Precinct 13 (a remake of the 1976 John Carpenter cult film) is the latest in this mini-genre. The film has big stars like Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne, Gabriel Bryne and a mustachioed Brian Dennehy (there really should be no other kind) but even star power with facial hair can’t stop Assault on Precinct 13 from feeling run-of-the-mill.
On New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, Sergeant Jake Roenick (Hawke) is left to tidy up precinct 13, which will be shut down in days. The precinct secretary (Drea De Matteo) and seen-it-all veteran Jasper (Dennehy) will keep Roenick company. But alas, they have more company than they expected. A bus transporting prisoners makes an emergency stop at the precinct because of a blizzard. The bus has three small time criminals (John Leguizamo, Ja Rule, Aisha Hinds) and one very big fish, crime kingpin and cop killer Marion Bishop (Fishburne). Late in the night the precinct is besieged by a team of dirty cops led by Marcus Duvall (Byrne). It seems Duvall and his squad of corrupt cops have had many deals with Bishop, enough that they can’t let him live. Jake takes command of the precinct’s motley crew, prisoners included, and attempts to have everyone work together to fight off the invading forces.
Hollywood upped the budget for this remake but they also upped the plot holes to match the firepower. How are the bad cops going to explain all those dead police officers in commando outfits? There’s likely enough forensic evidence everywhere to point a finger at the long arm of the law’s involvement. I suppose they could have burned the whole place down when they were done, but to paraphrase that great philosopher Ricky Ricardo, “Luuuuuucy, you got some ‘splainin’ to do.”
The acting is a non-issue. Hawke and Fishburne get to trade cool glances, Matteo gets to shake her Sopranos Joisey accent, and Dennehy gets to eat any scenery that isn’t bolted to the ground. I have no idea what Leguizamo was going for. His disturbed junkie performance reminded me of Mr. Ed, because whenever he spoke it looked like Leguizamo’s lip was being pulled up by an invisible string. Some may call this acting; I call it fun to watch.
Assault on Precinct 13 is constructed from so many familiar action elements you may think you’ve seen this movie before. Hawke plays a cop haunted by a bust gone wrong that, surprise, killed his partners. When the siege does go down, of course everyone can pick up a weapon (even a 1920s Tommy gun) and instantly become a trained marksman. There’s the whole “who can we trust” plot element that spurs Mexican standoffs between the cops and the crooks. All the characters are stock types, from Hawke’s reluctant hero, to Matteo’s saucy secretary, to Dennehy’s single-minded hothead to Fishburne’s calm and collected criminal mastermind badass. When a character opines a theory that someone on the inside is really working for the dirty cops, you should be able to immediately follow the falling anvils.
Even when it comes to the action, Assault on Precinct 13 is too familiar. Because nothing interesting is going on inside the precinct, the audience relies on the spurts of action for their money’s worth. It all gets a little bland after awhile. Cops try breaking in. They get shot. They try breaking in with more cops. They get shot. Granted, replace “cops” with “monsters” and you have 30% of horror movies. There needs to be escalating action and some overall cause and effect with the plot, especially with action movies set in one isolated locale. In Assault in Precinct 13, rarely does the previous moment matter because both sides seem to shrug and move on. The only notoriety director Jean-Francois Richet brings to the action is a peculiar fetish for long takes of fresh head shots. He does enjoy the slow trickle of blood out of a bullet to the cranium (I counted 5 times; turn it into a drinking game at your own danger).
Assault on Precinct 13 is indistinguishable from what Hollywood pumps out every day. The characters are stock, the dialogue is short but stale, the plot holes seem to swallow the film whole, and, most tragically, the action seems meaningless except when paring down the cast (there’s a ten-minute whirlwind that cuts the good guys in half). People hungry for action might find something worthwhile but most will probably walk out of the theater with the same shrug the actors seem to exhibit. Assault on Precinct 13 is a routine action flick that replaces escalation with excess.
Nate’s Grade: C