Killing_Gunther_PosterSNL Alumni Taran Killam wrote and directed this entry into the fake documentary genre.  Killam plays Blake, a mid-level hitman who aspires to prove himself by taking out the infamous Gunther. Gunther is the hitman all other hitmen both admire and fear.

Blake believes he will cement his own status as a legend if he can kill Gunther. For help, he assembles a team of assassins and starts setting traps for Gunther.  He has hired a documentary crew to follow he and his league of assassins.  Of course, it becomes increasingly clear that these assassins are ill equipped for taking on Gunther and they start to make fatal errors.

As a comedy, the characters to to be made with quirkiness in mind.  There are scenes where Blake gets frustrated by a barrage of questions from his tech guy, because they are interrupting his dramatic monologue.  Bobby Moynahan plays the excited Donnie, whose gimmick is explosives.  I would say that Aaron Yoo’s Yong is the most interesting assassin, as his gimmick is poisons.  This actually leads to some comical situations where he finds himself largely ineffective in the mission.

Killing_Gunther_poster_002But the film has one big problem.  Who do you see on the posters? Whose name features most prominently in both the posters featured in this review? Arnold Schwarzeneggar.  And boy, when he shows up?  The film starts getting more fun.  Know when he shows up? About the last twenty minutes of the film.

Fans of Schwarzeneggar will get impatient waiting for him to appear, and he shows up to late to save the film from the mediocrity that proceeds it. Killing Gunther is not terrible…but it just is not as entertaining as it could be in it’s road to the exciting stuff at the end.


The Dream…

“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”




Live Fast (Baby Driver, 2017)

Baby_Driver_PosterDirector Edgar Wright is known for his playing with genres, usually via comedy.  He has tackled action films through Hot Fuzz, horror through Shaun of the Dead and Sci-Fi with The World’s End.  He was long attached to Marvel’s Ant Man (going back before anything called the Marvel Cinematic Universe existed) and instead adapted the indie comic Scott Pilgrim Vs the World.

Here Wright has made a noir heist film.  Unlike previous efforts, he plays this film straight. Baby is a skilled getaway driver.  He is working off a debt to the enigmatic Doc. Doc is hired to put together teams for heists.  Baby has met a beautiful young waitress named Deborah.  Baby’s plan is to do a final job and be done with his debt.

Baby is quiet, rarely speaking, and usually just listening to music through his headphones.  According to Doc, he suffered an injury to his ears and the music helps him focus on his purpose as a driver.

Baby finds himself forced to do another job for Doc, which ends up going bad.  Baby then must find a way  to save Deborah and himself and get out from under Doc’s thumb.

Keeping it simple, Wright builds everything around impressive car chases and catchy rock and soul music.  The characterization is light, especially in the case of the women. Deborah is the virginal love interest, while Darling is the sexy femme fatale.  John Hamm’s Buddy is the character with the most depth, but that is only because he appears to have a bit of diversity to his personality.

Though the characters are not really deep, this serves the the narrative.  We don’t need complex characters or motivations, and they would really bog the film down. Instead, Baby Driver is a fun thrill ride with cool driving stunts and a killer soundtrack.

Bright_PosterNetflix has been focusing hard on original material over the past few years, especially now as they face the future of no Disney films.  Bright is their first foray into high concept, high budget action fantasy.

They brought together notorious Internet personality Max Landis (Screenwriting son of John Landis) and David Ayers (director of End of Watch and Suicide Squad) to present us with Bright.  Bright is a genre mashup, best described as a combination of Ayer’s own End of Watch and the 1988 sci-fi film Alien Nation*. Except, instead of aliens, it involves fantasy creatures.

Set in a version of our world in which elves, orcs, fairies and so on all exist and interacted with humanity for thousands of years, Will Smith plays the human cop Daryl Ward. His partner is the first Orc police officer, Nick Jakoby. Due to an incident where Ward was shot and Nick appeared to have let the perp get away, there is tension.  Nick pays lip service to the equality of the races when talking to his daughter, but he seems to struggle with it himself.

When the two stumble upon a young Elven Bright (a user of magic), they find themselves on the wrong end of gangs (both human and orc), evil elves and corrupt cops.  It is a chase through the city as they try and determine who they can trust and how they can stop the impending threat to the world.

Bright is not a terrible idea.  The film works hard to establish an existing racial hierarchy with it appearing to be Elves and Humans at the top, while Orcs face a lot of discrimination.  The film hints that the Orcs once threw their lot in with a dark lord, and so people generally do not trust them.

But this is also where the film falters. While it is a decent concept, some of the execution just feels lazy.  Smith has a throw away line about an orc being a “Shrek-Looking” thing.  Would Shrek exist in a world like this?  Would pop culture develop in the same trajectory?  Orc music is literally just death metal. Orc culture is basically “L.A. Gang Culture” stereotypes.  Sure, one character refers to having been a bus driver before moving to L.A., but we see no real examples of Orcs in any other life than gangs.

And to make things more frustrating, we never observe what kind of life Jakoby lives outside of being on the police force.  Oh, sure, he talks about how he has wanted to be a police officer since he was a child, and how he files down his tusks to appear less threatening. But we are told this.  And we know nothing beyond what he tells Ward. We see Ward’s home life.  We even know he is trying to sell his home.  We meet his wife and daughter.  Nick is likable in his somewhat teenage-ish exuberance and well intentioned demeanor.  Yet we never experience his life as an audience.  And the film really needs that.  This is where that Alien Nation comparison leaves Bright wanting. Alien Nation creates a real feel of the Newcomers trying to assimilate into the world around them. There are rich businessmen, street punks, teachers, prostitutes and most any profession out there. We are given important information through both show and tell. And it feels organic.  In Bright, it is all given through dialog.  There is some attempts to give us visual queue, mostly in the beginning where Ward and Jakoby are driving to work. This is mostly done through graffiti and Smith getting upset when they cut through Elven territory.

The villains are either stock characters (the humans and the orcs) or severely undefined.  While the film references the Dark Lord, the evil magic using elves seem to have very vague notions other than service to this Dark Lord.

This is not to say it is all bad.  I mean, the visual effects are nice.  The Orcs are appropriately brutish looking and the elves are both creepy and ethereal. The action sequences are exciting to watch.  But as much as I wanted to like this film, it just does not live up to it’s potential, especially when similar territory has done it so much better.

*I cannot take credit for this, the first person I saw make the reference was the talented comic book artist Jamal Igle. But this is by far the most accurate comparison.

Back_To_The_Future_3_Poster“The Future is whatever you make it, so make it a good one!” These are the words of wisdom Doc Brown chooses to give Marty after three films bouncing around time. Spoilers occur throughout…

Made back to back with Part Two, the third film takes Doc and Marty to a time most appealing to Doc Brown.  Why the old West is so appealing to Brown, a scientist, always seems weird to me. But anyways, Marty goes to 1955 Doc Brown for help.  Future Doc Brown hid the Delorean away, so Marty and 1955 Doc dig it out so they can fix it and Marty can return to 1985.  However, in spite of Doc’s comfort with remaining in the old west, Marty realizes there is a danger when they discover a tombstone for Brown from the 1800s.  And so he goes back to get Doc.

In the old West, Marty finds himself meeting the relatives of both his family and Biff Tannen.  Biff apparently comes from a long line of bullies. The film brings back the gag of Marty giving a false name, this time around he calls himself Clint Eastwood (which is met by laughter from locals for being a non-masculine name). Marty and Doc must figure out how to get back to 1985 before Doc is killed.

Things are complicated by the arrival of Clara, a schoolteacher.  Doc saves her from falling off a horse.  As Doc falls for her, they realize that she should have died, and Marty and Doc have altered history.

Back to the Future Part III avoids the complications of the previous film, keeping everything in a single time for most of the film.  It repeats the motifs of the original film, and it takes three films for Marty to learn not to be set of by being called chicken. But while it is less creative than Part II, it is more tonally consistant and therefore more satisfying for the audience, I suspect.

I do find the “moral” imparted by Doc odd.  We have spent three movies with Doc declaring how dangerous time travel is and how they need to stop jumping through time…only for Doc to decide to run around the time continuum with his family.

But still, this is a pretty enjoyable close to the series, and really, feels like a decent high note to end on.

back_to_the_future_2_poster-e1514977762521.pngSpoilers occur throughout…Back to the Future had one of those endings that worked both as a setup for future films, as well as just a cute way to end a time travel movie.  Marty’s life looks awesome and then Doc Brown shows up saying they need to fix the future. I suspect that the reality is, it was just meant to be a cute little throw away ending.  But then, Back to the Future was a big hit…and both the film makers and audiences wanted to see more. And so they set forward with plans for two sequels.

Back to the future begins right where the first film left off, Doc Brown urgently telling Marty they have to go into the future to do something about Marty’s kid. They bring along Jennifer for the trip to the future, but she becomes so excited by the notion of being able to see her future, the Doc opts to knock her out, telling Marty she will just think it is a dream.  Doc tells Marty to go to a local hang out, meet Griff (grandson of Biff) and simply tell him “no”.  It turns out that if Marty Jr. goes along with Griff’s peer pressure, he will end up in jail.

But after fixing that potential future, other things go awry.  The police find Jennifer and bring her to her future home. Meanwhile, Marty gets the idea to buy a sports almanac so he can go back to the present and make bets based on future knowledge.  Doc puts the idea to bed, but someone overheard the idea…and while Doc and Marty go to get Jennifer? Old Man Biff seeks to reverse his fortune.

They return to the present and leave the unconscious Jennifer on her porch. Marty slips in through his bedroom window, only to discover a whole new family is living in the house.  After being chased off by an angry father, Marty comes across a newspaper.  Certain they came back to the wrong time, Marty discovers that, indeed, they returned to 1985…but everything is off.

Marty is knocked out, and when he awakens (in a scene mimicking the sequence from the first film where he awakens to find his teen mother watching over him) he is startled by a mother who looks very different from before.  He is horrified to discover that Biff is his step-father…and Biff is the richest man in America. Biff tries to kill Marty based on a warning from the man who gave him the sports almanac.  Doc Brown intervenes and explains to Marty that an alternate timeline has been created.

To fix the timeline, they must go back to 1955 and steal the almanac from young Biff.  Then, hijinks ensue.  Marty has to get the almanac from Biff, while avoiding Biff’s thugs, yet also save his other self from those thugs.  It is a crazy last act, filled with alternative views of sequences from the original film.

The most memorable part of the film for audiences was the future of 2015, where Marty rides a hover board, is wearing self drying clothes and everything is super technologically advanced. And apparently Gale and Zemeckis believed the height of future technology would be TV screen communications, swiping credits cards and…fax machines all over the house, built into walls.

It is a fun sequence though, for my money alternate 1985 is an interesting idea.  Biff’s rich and famous routine is absurdly entertaining in it’s obvious allusions to the Donald Trump of the 80’s.  And the notion of 80’s nostalgia is certainly not inaccurate.

The film ends on a cliff hanger, with it seeming that they solved the problem of the Dark 1985 timeline, but the Delorean is hit by lightning, causing it to appear as if Doc Brown was incinerated…but it is all a set up for the third chapter.  A Western Union guy arrives with a letter addressed to Marty from 70 years earlier.

They introduce a a variation on the photo gimmick from the first film, instead using newspaper clippings. As they make changes, the paper headlines and photos change.

This is a flawed film, mainly because halfway through it just starts to seem endlessly complicated. But, in some ways, I really like it for daring to mess around with it’s formula.

Back_To_The_Future_PosterSpoilers occur throughout…Marty McFly has big dreams but lacks any of the confidence to reach for them.  His high school principal is convinced every generation of the McFly family are losers. And it is not hard to see why Marty may struggle with that.  His parents are meek.  His father is pushed around by his boss Biff. Biff has George McFly writing up his reports as well as supplying him with his car. His mother is uncomfortable with the notion of a girl calling a boy. His sister and brother are unemployed layabouts.  And his uncle pretty much lives in prison, failing to get parole at the beginning of the film.

Marty’s only bright spot is his girlfriend Jennifer.  She is confident Marty should be successful, especially as a musician.  One evening, Marty is asked by his friend, eclectic inventor Doc Brown, to help him with a top secret project.  The project turns out to be a Delorean car that Doc converted to… A TIME MACHINE. After an attack from rogue Libyans (it makes sense, trust me) forces Marty to jump into the Delorean and race off, triggering the time travel.  Marty finds himself in 1955. Marty runs into his father, who turns out to be just as as weak willed as his grown up self.

But it is when he saves his father from being hit by a car that everything goes wrong. He discovers the act prevents his father and mother from starting their relationship, instead, young Loraine falls for Marty. Marty Tracks down Doc Brown for help and they set out to fix Marty’s parental relationship (discovering that he and his siblings will be erased from the timeline if his parents fail to fall in love).

As bizarre and outlandish as the plot may seem (and even creepy, what with the subplot that Marty’s mom has a crush on him), everything fits together nicely. The film establishes all the town’s important monuments in about two minutes.  Each character is quickly defined in brief dialog.  And the film presents the science of time travel in ways that seem complex, but easy to suspend disbelief for.  Zemeckis and writer Bob Gale also have a simple gimmick for communicating to the audience the severity of the situation.  Marty has a photograph of he and his siblings, each of whom fade from the photograph through the course of the movie.

Back to the Future was Michael J. Foxes first big starring feature film role.  A role that almost never happened, the film began shooting with Eric Stoltz, but after awhile, it was felt he was just not right in the role.  Up until this point Fox had been a rising television star.  But Back to the Future pushed him into the next level.

Crispin Glover brings a likable and sweet nerdiness to the role of George McFly. This is important, both for George and Marty.  While Marty is a “cooler” kid, a lot of his insecurities are mirrored in his father.  When George makes his third act turnaround, Glover does so with a great performance.  Lea Thompson is sweet, with a hint of rebellion, as Marty’s mom.  A lot of the fun for her character is the juxtaposition of the woman she is in the future and the teen she was.

As Doc Brown, Christopher Lloyd brings his signature manic style, making for an entertaining performance Thomas F. Wilson will probably be forever tied to Biff Tannen, but he is extremely memorable in the role.

While the old age makeup for all the actors certainly looks like “Old People” makeup, it is not so distracting as to damage the enjoyment of the film. A lot of the effects still hold up for the film.

The tone of the film is light, with plenty of humor. And the jokes, for the most part, have withstood the test of time. There is one gag that has not held up so well, because, looking back, it is an image issue.  The gag on it’s face is not remotely malicious, and the filmmakers probably never once had it occur to them that they were basically attributing a form of music created by black musicians to a white kid from the future.

Decades later, Back to the Future is every bit as entertaining as it was in 1985.


To Save a Life (Silence, 2016)

Silence_PosterMartin Scorsese is most known for his gritty portrayals of the American underworld. But something that has often come up in his career is references to his Catholicism.  This comes to life in Silence, the story of two seventeen century Catholic Missionaries who go to Japan to find their missing mentor.  There are reports he has apostatized, which the two young men reject.  They see it as impossible that the man that trained them in faith would reject that same faith himself.

They get help entering Japan from a tormented soul who turns is a Christian who denied his faith to save his life, while the rest of his village refused to renounce and were burned alive. He introduces them to Japanese Christians, which begins their  harrowing experience.  The film focuses heavily on Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) trying to hold on to his faith as he is tormented by the Inquisitor who is dedicated to convincing Rodrigues to renounce his faith and convictions.

What makes this story so harrowing is the brutality of the torture.  For Rodrigues, it is entirely psychological. The Inquisitor uses the suffering of others to try and drive the wedge between Rodrigues and his Christ.

Silence is a powerful and tremendous film.  The sound design largely eschews music, with the exceptions of Christians singing and music played by the Inquisitor’s people. Otherwise, it is the sounds of nature that envelope the viewer’s ears.

Garfield and Driver are compelling in their performances, and of course Liam Neeson brings his trademark calm as the missing Ferreira.  Issei Ogata is strangely both cruelly wicked and almost like a kindly grandparent.  It is a testament to his performance that I could not totally hate the character. Yôsuke Kubozuka role as the troubled Kichijiro is such a frustrating and heartbreaking performance. Tadanobu Asano’s Interpreter is one who almost can convince you that the choice to apostatize is the only right choice.  You almost believe his pleading with Rodrigues is out of heartfelt sympathy to save lives.

Scorsese’s Silence is a gut wrenching exploration of faith in the face of tribulation.

Here is my top ten… top eleven… top twelve … wait… top THIRTEEN no, noTop FOURTEEN films of 2017. Before anyone asks?  I have not seen Ladybird, Blade Runner 2049, Call Me By Your Name, Dunkirk, Murder on the Orient Express, Wind River, Hostiles, the Shape of Water or Mother!

logan-movie-poster1.  Logan
Logan is the swan song for both Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart in their memorable runs as Wolverine and Professor X.  Set in a time where most of the X-Men are gone and Wolverine’s health is failing, Logan was a gutsy move.  It earns it’s ‘R’ rating in the first five minutes, but what really makes it stand out is the emotion that is packed into it.  Stewart gives a wonderful performance here.

2. Land of Mine
I know this was released in Denmark in 2015, but technically, it is a 2017 film for the U.S. So I am calling it as “this year”.  After all, the director’s next film is due out in 2018.

3. War For the Planet of the Apes
Matt Reeves managed to make the most consistent trilogy of films.  All three of his Apes movies have been top notch.  Emotional and exciting, Reeve shows a real understanding of the balance of action and drama.

4. Wonder Woman
Wonder Woman was everything I wanted to see from the DC film universe.  Wonder Woman is hopeful and filled with excitement.  It was a bright spot for Super-Hero films in general, the DC Cinematic Universe quite specifically.

get_out_poster5. Get Out
Jordan Peele, best known as part of the comedy duo Key and Peele, wrote and directed this smart dark social satire thriller that skewers liberal attitudes towards black Americans.  It has great writing and some really good performances.

6. The Big Sick
A wonderful and personal story from husband and wife creative team Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, the Big Sick mines humor and heartbreak from their real life experience.  In what seems like the ultimate Rom Com movie plot, Emily had fallen into a coma early in their relationship.  The Big Sick does not approach this from a glossy sense of “isn’t it romantic”. It is messy and gut wrenching at times.  It is also endearing and joyful.  They explore the issues of cultural differences, the pressures those can bring on relationships. Really, the Big Sick is a wonderful little movie.

7. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Unexpectedly one of the most controversial films of the year… and one of the rare reversals for Star Wars where the critics largely love it, while the general audience is more sharply divided…The Last Jedi is kind of the Unforgiven of Star Wars. It also has one of Mark Hamill’s best live action performances ever.

Atomic_Blonde_Poster8. Atomic Blonde
This film was not what was advertised.  This is not a James Bond Spy Action flick.  This is an Espionage Thriller, and a very, very good one at that.

9. Edge of Seventeen
I thought this was a real good “coming of age” film, full of wit and heart.

10. It
It (Chapter One) is a pretty solid fright film.  Dramatic with some of the strongest kid actor performances I have seen in a long time, this was a real intense scare film and one of the best adaptions of King to date.

11. Logan Lucky
I suppose this is really just “White Trash Ocean’s Eleven”…but it is full of great performances, and held together emotionally by Channing Tatum and young Farrah Mackenzie. Really, this was a lot of fun.

12. Baby Driver
Baby Driver is not a deep film. It is not even all that emotionally engaging.  It is the simple story of a getaway driver trying to get out of his job for the girl he loves. But Edgar Wright does not give the film any such pretense of being more than just a really good noir action flick with a killer soundtrack.


13. Thor: Ragnarok
Ragnarok is a lot of fun. I simply had a terrific amount of fun.  The Hulk has evolved, Cate Blanchett’s Hela is a good villain and Taika Waititi managed what seemed to be looking impossible…a Thor film that rose above, “I guess it was okay.”

14. Spider-Man: Homecoming
Sam Raimi had a decent run with Spider-Man, but ended on a flawed note.  Marc Webb made Spider-Man films with some good points, but still did not quite connect for audiences.  Sony’s deal with Marvel to bring Spider-Man into the Marvel Cinematic Universe paid off.  Skipping over the origin story, we get a Spider-Man months into his role.  Peter Parker wants to be an A-List Super-Hero badly, but he is stuck on a neighborhood level, and his connections to Tony Stark are not boosting him forward like he hoped.  Between good arcs for both Spider-Man and his nemesis the Vulture, I am excited to see where Peter goes next.

Honorable Mentions:

John Wick 2.  Somehow, these John Wick movies have me wanting to see more.  I mean, they are really enjoyable.  Kong: Skull Island was fun, much in the same way as Baby Driver.  A Cure For Wellness was just such a weird film, but I really liked it. Also really enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy 2.  While not perfect, it is a lot of fun.

Stress (Land of Mine, 2015)

Land_of_Mine_PosterSet in Denmark after World War II, the Danish Government realizes their beaches are covered in deadly landmines.  Rather than risk their own people, they choose to use the German POWs that are so despised.

The film introduces us to Sergeant Carl Rasmussen as the Germans are being marched out of Denmark.  He is a man consumed with rage, and sees a German carrying a flag, and assaults him.  Rasmussen is assigned several German POWs to clear a local beach of landmines. The POWs are actually about fifteen to eighteen years of age.  They really are boys who seem to not understand what they were fighting for.

There is a scene early on in which several of the boys became sick.  When it is discovered they stole pig feed from the local farm out of desperation, it is realized they ingested rat dropping, causing the illness. The woman who owns the farm laughs, telling Rasmussen that she got some Germans after all.

And this is the movie’s big risk.  These boys were Nazis. But they are young boys, and it makes it harder to just be callous towards them.  And much of Land of Mine is about Rasmussen’s journey from anger to sympathy.  His concern that his superiors are being as cruel and as unkind as the Nazis were.

It is an intense film, where a cough can bring the unexpected end to a life.  You watch as these boys risk life and limb, and one careless moment can leave the viewer gasping.  This is a powerful film film, low on physical violence, but emotionally jarring.