Review – The Hitman’s Bodyguard

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From director Patrick Hughes (The Expendables 3) comes the new action-comedy The Hitman’s Bodyguard.  Starring Samuel L. Jackson and a recently-revitalized Ryan Reynolds, The Hitman’s Bodyguard follows the exploits of bodyguard Michael Bryce (Reynolds) as he must ensure that renowned hitman Darius Kincaid (Jackson) makes it to the International Court of Justice in order to testify against notorious criminal Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman).  Tensions erupt between Bryce and Kincaid and, naturally, hilarity ensues.  At least, theoretically.

Again, as I always say, mileage varies on various stylings of comedy and this film will be no exception.  I do feel confident in saying that the film is not as much of a comedy as the marketing would have everyone believe.  All of the humor stems entirely from the conflict between the characters represented by Reynolds and Jackson.  It’s completely situational and devoid of any silly gags or poor attempts at wit.  Reynolds gets off a number of successful zingers (with flawless delivery, as always) while Jackson provides more character-driven humor, which is right up his alley.  The movie isn’t the funniest of the year, or anything, but I certainly laughed on multiple occasions, even if it wasn’t exactly the outright spoof that has been suggested by the trailers and the poster.

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The cast mostly does well with the material they are handed, and they are the best component of The Hitman’s Bodyguard.  I was pleased to see Elodie Yung (Daredevil, The Defenders) in another prominent role and hope that her star continues to rise.  She, Jackson, and Reynolds all exhibit undeniable charisma and chemistry, elevating the film above its script as much as can be expected.  Salma Hayek has less screen time than the others but gives a memorable performance – perhaps the most memorable.  Gary Oldman is the only one who seems to phone it in, a bit.  He doesn’t exactly do a poor job as the Belarussian crime lord but he shows signs of disinterest (such as pronouncing the word “charade” two different ways  in his accent within 30 seconds of each other).

The biggest issue with The Hitman’s Bodyguard is that it brings nothing new to the table.  Even though, as I mentioned, the cast makes the film better than it is on paper, they can only do so much.  For the most part, the story, the action, and the character relationships and dynamics are stereotypical for this type of buddy/action film.  It’s tempting to suggest that the Reynolds/Jackson relationship is something new, but – while the specifics of their relationship are unique and their interactions are enjoyable – it’s really not altogether dissimilar from what we’ve seen in films such as Rush Hour and Lethal Weapon.  A strong cast can do nothing to improve upon an uninspired story.

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The action suffers from the same issue.  As well-staged and executed as they are, there is nothing particularly distinctive or imaginative about the action set pieces.  There’s an exorbitantly succinct fight inside an industrial kitchen involving Reynolds that was rather fun, but that’s about it.  Outside of that, it’s the exact same routine gunplay and car chases that we’ve seen a multitude of times without anything to compound the excitement or throw an unexpected twist in the audience’s direction.

The generic (and rather distracting) score doesn’t help matters.  In fact, I argue that the music actually hurts the film by making it feel antiquated and low-budget by recycling the same types of riffs, chords, arrangements, and leitmotifs that have been employed in the straightforward action film genre for decades.  And this isn’t a stylistic creative choice with a definitive purpose such as with the excellent Atomic Blonde.  In that case, the idea was to make a film set in the eighties that is simultaneously evocative of films made in the eighties.  In the instance of The Hitman’s Bodyguard, the music just comes off as cheap and lazy, as if the producers couldn’t afford an experienced and visionary composer.

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What this all amounts to is that The Hitman’s Bodyguard is . . . fine.  The cast is strong, the music is detrimentally weak, and everything else is acceptable but unspectacular.  But, with so many truly great films out there, right now (go out of your way for A Ghost Story, Wind River, and the previously-mentioned Atomic Blonde), that’s just not enough.  The good news is that the film only cost $30,000,000 (so maybe Lionsgate actually couldn’t afford a composer) and has a good chance of making a profit by being a mediocre distraction.  But if people are complaining about the supposed “lack of originality” in Hollywood and then summarily choose movies like The Hitman’s Bodyguard over Wind River or A Ghost Story, then they only have themselves to blame.  The film is adequately entertaining, but don’t expect anything more than that.

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Review – The Hitman’s Bodyguard

Review – Kong: Skull Island

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I’ve been a pretty big King Kong fan for most of my adult life.  The original 1933 classic was the first special-effects blockbuster that broke every established rule and opened up the world’s collective mind to the potential of film as a storytelling medium.  Peter Jackson’s 2004 remake was a brilliant and poignant love poem to its progenitor that spent the first half of its running time as an excellent drama and the back half as an unparalleled action bonanza (the T-Rex battle may still be my favorite fight ever committed to film).  There have been plenty of other Kong films over the years, but those two are the standouts, and I included them both on my Films That Every Self-Professed Film Lover Should See list that I did over a year ago.  (I plan on doing a follow-up to that list, as soon as I can find the time.)

Now, Kong is back.  This is a new Kong –  a bigger Kong.  And he comes with a new director and a new cast.  The marketing for this one has looked fun, but has also come off as rather empty.  I haven’t been crazy about the lighter tone, though the cast is impeccable.  But the best Kong films of the past have carried with them significant heart and a palpable weight to the proceedings.  I got the impression that this new film (by fledgling director Jordan Vogt-Roberts) contained little-to-none of that.  Was that the case, or just a misrepresentation by the marketing department?  And, if true, would the action and monster mayhem adequately compensate?

It’s always a risk to hire a new director for a film this huge.  Oftentimes, their inexperience shows and lessens the impact and scale.  And then there are other times when a new face comes along with a unique eye, and that’s what Vogt-Roberts brings to the table in Kong: Skull Island.  I would love to know what he presented to Warner Brothers that earned their trust in him as they handed him the reigns to this film, but I suspect it was fresh and unexpected.

The cast is robust and packed with reliable fan-favorites alongside talented rising stars and they work wonderfully together.  John C. Reilly’s character had the most potential for dampening the film’s tone, but Reilly is a seasoned professional and knows exactly where to place his performance on the Humor Spectrum so that he never becomes a caricature.  And get used to seeing Brie Larson.  After winning an Oscar for her genius performance in Room (my favorite film of 2015), Kong is just the next rung for her on the Ladder to Superstardom as she’ll appear in next year’s Avengers: Infinity War as Marvel’s preeminent female hero, Captain Marvel.  Her screen presence in Kong further justifies that casting decision as she stands tall next to the likes of Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, and John Goodman.  Toby Kebbell steps in as well, hopefully redeeming himself in the eyes of geeks around the world after being brutally miscast as Doctor Doom in Josh Trank’s 2015 Fantastic Four film.  No complaints about the cast; they gel well and all translate as natural and believable.

There are numerous callbacks and nods to not only previous Kong films, but other monster franchises, as well.  In addition to those older Kong movies, I saw references to Godzilla, the Jurassic Park films, and even 2008’s The Incredible Hulk.  Vogt-Roberts certainly loves the genre and all of those little Easter eggs will delight anyone with sharp eyes, ears, and the requisite knowledge to pick up on them.

Oh, wait, this is an action movie, isn’t it? No worries; WB and Vogt-Roberts know exactly what audiences are expecting and won’t leave them disappointed.  Vogt-Roberts uses that keen eye of his to deliver some of the most visually innovative action brawls we’ve ever seen.  He keeps the camera wide and slows the action down by just a beat or two in order to ensure that every frame is easily digestible and impactful.  There are no tight, fast shots that will require the viewer to lean over and ask their neighbor exactly what just happened.  Vogt-Roberts has an intuitive knack for this sort of filmmaking and I welcome him to this industry with open arms.

Happily, I can also state that there is meaningful subtext for those who wish to see it.  John Goodman’s opening line sets the tone, but it goes deeper than that tongue-in-cheek jab (that I’ll let you discover for yourself).  This story largely takes place in the seventies, against the backdrop of post-Vietnam America.  Every character in our cast is hurting and licking their wounds in some form or another, desperate for anything that feels like a victory, whether of the personal sort or in the broader, more patriotic sense.  And then . . . they find themselves on Skull Island.  There are no true villains in the film.  But as each character’s individualized versions of “victory” begins to manifest, conflict naturally occurs and the cast becomes fleshed out, believable, and empathetic.  Mix in the theme of man versus nature, and Kong: Skull Island exists (and succeeds) on several different levels.  And, as a result, it should please all types of moviegoers.

I’m not going to say that Kong: Skull Island is as strong as Peter Jackson’s remake, because it isn’t (it lacks the poetry and heart of that film), but I suspect it will be more of a widespread crowdpleaser than that film, due solely to its significantly more abbreviated runtime.  But it’s also a completely different film than that one, with a different story, different characters, and different goals.  If you like Kong/giant monster/Kaiju films at all, you owe it to yourself to check this film out.  I can’t fathom how anyone with a predilection for this sort of thing could possibly be disappointed by it.  If you haven’t indulged in giant monster movies, this could be a great place to start.  In any event, Kong: Skull Island is a raucous event of a movie that exists on whatever level the beholder chooses to view it (hopefully in IMAX 3D.  Or at least in 3D.  Feel it; don’t settle for looking at it.).  If you want to have nothing less than a fun time escaping at the movies, Skull Island should be your final destination.

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Review – Kong: Skull Island

77. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

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Like most people in my age group, I grew up a Tim Burton fan.  He’s always had his own unique brand of filmmaking.  He brought us Beetlejuice.  He put Pee-Wee Herman on the big screen.  He redefined Batman for live-action.  He re-popularized stop-motion animation with his Frankenweenie short and then by producing (not directing) The Nightmare Before Christmas.  And he made Johnny Depp a mainstream star whether we wanted it, or not (most people did).  His movies are almost always instantly recognizable to everyone – hardcore and casual fans alike.  Tim Burton has had a truly legendary career and is one of only a handful of directors who are legitimately household names.

But then something happened.  I’m not going to quite say that he lost his touch as he’s made some quality films in recent years (Big Eyes was pretty darned good, though out of his wheelhouse) but he kind of seemed to get lost in the shuffle of bigger, more high-profile films and filmmakers.  Outside of his two Batman films, Planet of the Apes, and the 2008 adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, Burton has been less about big-budget spectacle and more about quirky, creepy mood and atmosphere.  And with the industry shifting more towards movies with large scope and safe, four-quadrant appeal, Burton’s smaller, darker films haven’t been getting the attention they once enjoyed.

Perhaps part of the issue is that, while most of his recent projects have maintained the macabre aspects of the work that put him on the map, he seemed to become a bit complacent.  The originality he was so renowned for felt muted.  The visuals weren’t as striking.  The stories weren’t as haunting.  The characters weren’t as memorable.  Burton’s heart seemed to be out of his work.

When I first saw the original trailer for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, my kneejerk reaction was that it looked a lot like old-school, classic Tim Burton.  I got the same vibe that I got from Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands.  Seeing all of the bizarre visuals, a majestic setting, a sensation of mystery and wonder, and a charismatic star as the face of the project (Eva Green) gave me the distinct impression that the Burton we’ve missed was back!  Other than having heard the title, I was (and still am) unfamiliar with the book series by Ransom Riggs on which the film is based, but I had no doubt that Burton was the one to adapt it to film.

I have to say that the film wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, but I was in no way disappointed with what I saw.  The visuals and atmosphere that Burton has become so beloved for are present through the majority of the film.  But we don’t start there.  The transition from the chilling opening credits into the first scene of the film, proper, is deliberately both jarring and tongue-in-cheek.  Right off the bat, it’s clear that Burton is having fun, again.  I relaxed immediately.

As mentioned, the character designs are typically (for Burton) unsettling.  But, again in typical Burton fashion, these disturbing visages are often juxtaposed with the endearing characters with which they are paired.  At its core, as odd as this might sound, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is essentially X-Men.  The stories are different, but the core themes, concepts, and structures are nearly identical.  That’s okay, though, as it’s so well-executed with a Tim-Burton flair that most people aren’t even going to notice.  They’ll be too busy being sucked into the world and having a good time.

My two noteworthy issues are pretty short and to the point.  For one, there is a time travel component to the story and the rules of it are never fully explained or explored.  The process just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  It’s not such a big deal that the story shouldn’t be told due to the details being too tough to hammer out, though.  In this case, the ends justify the means.  My second issue is even smaller, and it’s something I’ve mentioned when speaking about other films: the propulsive event takes a long time to get to.  A very long time.  For well over an hour, we’re essentially just hanging out with the characters as they wander throughout their day(s) aimlessly and simply live their lives.  Eventually the event happens that gives the story something to work towards, but I got a little restless waiting for it.

But only a little.  The characters are strong enough that they were fun to hang with until that propulsive event occurred.  And it’s simple: the protagonists are likable and sympathetic while the antagonists are unpleasant and vile.  There are no shades of gray, here, but that fits this particular story.  It’s basically the complement of Edward Scissorhands.  That film was about an extraordinary character adapting to the mundane world; this one is about a seemingly-unremarkable boy being introduced to a fantastical place.  It just works.

Something that really took me by surprise is the climax.  Once the film starts building, it crescendos into a wild, wacky, and inventive conflict where everybody gets to shine and – from the looks of it – have a blast as well.  (I know I did.)  I won’t single anyone on the cast out, but they all hold their own (well, except for Finlay MacMillan, who plays Enoch and utterly fails to convince me that he’s capable of feeling love of any kind) and step up their game when asked.  The collective joy that they seem to be feeling just from starring in this film is infectious and really helps make up for the film’s shortcomings.

Overall, I’m very pleased with Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.  It’s not going to crack my Top Ten for the year, or anything, but I feel like Tim Burton is back to doing what he does best and – maybe even more importantly – having fun at work, again.  My hope is that this is the beginning of another hot streak for him (creatively, at least, if not financially.  We’ll see how it performs.) and that he can rise back to the top of the industry.  Regardless of what happens in the future, here in the present, I feel like other Burton diehards, and hopefully general audiences alike, will be pleased with Miss Peregrine, as well.

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77. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

52. The Legend of Tarzan

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The Legend of Tarzan is the film I was most looking forward to, this weekend.  And that’s a strong statement, because there were four films released this weekend (won’t be getting to the fourth, quite yet) that I was highly anticipating.  I held off on this one until I could get to an IMAX theater because, when IMAX is an option, it’s really the only way.

The trailers for Tarzan were fantastic and Margot Robbie is a perfect choice for Jane.  Even though Alexander Skarsgård played my favorite character on my least-favorite HBO show, True Blood (after a decent first season, it really wasn’t good.  But it introduced the world to a couple of talents with true star-potential.), I wasn’t as sold on his casting.  He just didn’t feel rugged enough for the role of Tarzan to me.  Nonetheless, I was excited for this one.

When it boils down to it, though, The Legend of Tarzan is a well-intentioned near-miss.  Without question, the action (of which there is a plethora, once the movie picks up steam) is amazingly staged and executed.  In this arena, Tarzan truly feels unique, unlike anything else that audiences have seen.  The viewer is put right in the (ahem) swing of things and gets a vibe for what it’s like to actually be joining in on the festivities.  At least, that’s how it feels in IMAX 3D.  The effects are flawless and I personally enjoyed seeing all of the different animal species get involved, as that’s pretty uncommon in films, as well.  The jungle locations and settings are breathtaking and truly take advantage of the large-screen, high-resolution format.

The rest of the film is a mixed bag.

The cast is mostly strong (Samuel L. Jackson is fun, as usual.  And, while it was just declared that Scarlett Johansson is the highest paid actress in history, I’m going on the record and declaring Margot Robbie as the strongest challenger and most-likely successor to that throne), but my instincts on Skarsgård were unfortunately on point.  I don’t dislike him and he gives it his all, but I feel like he’s miscast.  His baby face and soft eyes just don’t translate to a character who never knew his parents and was raised in the deep jungle by gorillas.  He never feels like Tarzan, despite, as I said, a game effort.  (Although he and Robbie both also take advantage of the large-screen, high-resolution format.  The film has some good and some bad, but no ugly, regardless of your particular persuasion.)

The writing is also uneven.  The characters are classic stereotypes.  The great Christoph Waltz is wasted, here, as his role is just written as evil, mustache-twirling Christoph Waltz.  Robbie’s Jane is the now-common spunky love interest.  I do have to defend the film here in one regard, however.  There has been talk about her being a captive for much of the film, which, yes, is true.  But when people complain about these sorts of things, their objections carry a suggestion that the female character in question is portrayed as being a victim because she’s less capable than the male character(s).  This couldn’t be further from the truth.  Tarzan is also captured but escapes only through a fortuitous rescue.  Jane is sufficiently strong, but not particularly unique.  Nor is anybody else.  They’re cookie-cutter archetypes with the occasional wrinkle thrown in, for good measure.  But occasional wrinkles aren’t enough.

The story is where the good intentions come into play.  As with The BFG, I’m not acquainted with Edgar Rice Burroughs’s original Tarzan stories, but this was an approach I’d never seen before.  And that was likely the idea.  After all, people are constantly saying how they want something new.  And here, they get it, with regards to Tarzan.

But studios need to stop listening to those people because they don’t mean it. In general, audiences aren’t interested in something new and they don’t want a domesticated Tarzan and government/tribal politics.  And that’s what the first third/half of the film consists of.  Eventually, the Tarzan we expect comes to fruition, and the film picks up the pace and actually becomes pretty fun.  But it takes a while.

During that opening stretch, there are flashback scenes sprinkled in, showing the origins of Tarzan and his meeting with Jane.  When these popped up, I kept wishing that this was the movie I was watching.

Director David Yates tried to present us with a fresh Tarzan.  But what he should have realized is that it’s been decades since there was a live-action Tarzan film, so any Tarzan would have been a fresh Tarzan.  Sticking to the basics would have been well-advised, especially considering the film’s astonishing $180 million budget.

Aside from that, the characters and dialogue really need to pop in these modern wannabe blockbusters.  Marvel has completely raised expectations for these types of films, all across the board.  Before 2008, The Legend of Tarzan would have been a massive hit.  Now, it’s just another summer movie and will have to depend on the foreign markets to make a profit.  And that’s fitting for a film that has its heart in the right place but its priorities in the wrong ones.

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52. The Legend of Tarzan