‘Bullet Train’ Zooms Past Sensible Storytelling But Manages to Have Some Fun Along the Way

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Bullet Train (CREDIT: Scott Garfield/Sony Pictures)

Starring: Brad Pitt, Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry, Andrew Koji, Hiroyuki Sanada, Benito A Martínez Ocasio, Michael Shannon, Sandra Bullock, Zazie Beetz, Logan Lerman, Karen Fukuhara, Masi Oka

Director: David Leitch

Running Time: 126 Minutes

Rating: R for Blood from Guns, Swords, Knives, and Poison

Release Date: August 5, 2022 (Theaters)

What’s It About?: If a movie takes place on a speeding train, you can bet on non-stop action! Or can you? Well, you can at least rely on a captive set of characters. As the titular transport in Bullet Train charges ahead from Tokyo to Kyoto, our main fellow to follow is Ladybug (Brad Pitt), who appears to be some sort of assassin, except that he doesn’t seem very violent, at least not on this mission. Then there’s the brotherly pair of Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), who are much more comfortable whipping out their firearms. And there’s no way to miss Prince (Joey King) in her short skirt and tight bubblegum pink sweater; it’s obvious right away that underneath her schoolgirl facade lurks the heart of a killer. Is the fellow known as The Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada) the one pulling all the strings? Maybe! Or maybe it could be that one of the other famous faces that pops up along the way will clear up the confusion. Also, there’s a very poisonous snake wriggling around.

What Made an Impression?: For most of Bullet Train‘s path of destruction, I was never really sure what anybody’s mission was. And quite frankly, none of them seemed to either. Sure, there’s a briefcase with plenty of cash that certainly is worth keeping an eye on. But if anything, that’s the reward and not the job itself. Flashbacks pop up to provide backstory, but they don’t fully answer how everyone ended up on the same departure. MINOR SPOILER ALERT: The conclusion spells it all out eventually. But before then, screenwriter Zak Olkewicz and director David Leitch ask for a lot of patience from the audience. Or they request that we just embrace the ambiguity and enjoy Bullet Train as an exercise in frenetic style and a freaky parade of accents.

I at least appreciated how the casting was in part an inversion of this year’s The Lost City, with Pitt and Sandra Bullock switching the roles of bewildered lead and glorified slightly-more-than-a-cameo. And it’s also fun to behold King subsuming herself into the kinda-sorta Big Bad villain role. But in the meantime, questions abound, such as: is that accent real? And also: is that other accent real? And furthermore: why don’t any of the non-criminal passengers seem to notice the gore and bullet holes all over the place? The ending had me going, “Oh wow, that’s what that was all about?” But beforehand, I was somehow against all odds comforted by the steady hand of a cast willing to do everything that was asked of them without any winks to the camera. Vengeance really never turns out how you expect it to go, especially when all the plot twists feel like they were determined by whacking a piñata and throwing what spilled out into a blender.

Bullet Train is Recommended If You Like: The magnetic charm of Brad Pitt, The reveals on The Masked Singer, Derailments

Grade: 3 out of 5 Boomslangs

This Is a Movie Review: Wish Upon

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CREDIT: Steve Wilkie / Broad Green Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in July 2017.

Starring: Joey King, Ryan Phillippe, Elisabeth Röhm, Ki Hong Lee, Shannon Purser, Sydney Park, Kevin Hanchard, Sherilyn Finn

Director: John R. Leonetti

Running Time: 90 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Tableaux of Death

Release Date: July 14, 2017

“Be careful what you wish for,” yada yada yada, just state your message and move on – we’re here for the blood! Actually though, discerning horror viewers, like all film buffs, are really here for the imagination. Sure, plenty of us have reveled in excessive gore from time to time, but what we really want is a new innovation for toying with our deepest fears. Wish Upon’s premise offers little groundbreaking, but it is simple enough that there is plenty of room for surprising variation. For the majority of its running time, that potential is unrealized, but a breathless finale hints at what could have been and is nearly intense to salvage the whole endeavor.

Clare Shannon (the already-prolific-at-17 Joey King) is not too different from most teenagers, insofar as she wishes she were rich and popular, that the cute boy would fall in love with her, and that her dad (Ryan Phillippe) would stop being SOOO embarrassing. But unlike most teenagers, her dad dumpster dives for valuables, and she is the lead in a horror movie, thus she finds herself in position of an ancient Chinese music box. When she declares whatever she desires in the presence of the box, her wish automatically comes true – bing, bang, boom, no questions asked! Of course, there is a catch: each wish granted is paid for with the death of a loved one. All of Clare’s wishes are selfish, so there is a moral reckoning at play here. But when one of her friends asks her why she does not wish for, say, world peace, it begs the question: would such a noble request also be balanced out with a killing? There is no indication that the box would make any distinctions between wishes in terms of its price.

Wish Upon unfortunately never gets around to exploring these philosophical conundrums. Instead, it spins its wheels, as Clare refuses to accept the obviousness of what is going on. Skepticism about the supernatural is understandable, as horror movie characters usually do not realize that they are in a horror movie. But at a certain point, there is no logical or the film refusing to move forward, it settles into a routine of neo-Valley Girl high school slice of life interspersed with killing in the key of Final Destination-lite (i.e., simple Rube Goldberg, minor tension).

That is a shame, because there are plenty of disturbing, intense, or just plain unusual directions that this premise could go in. And in its last act, Wish Upon suddenly finds the right inspiration to meet that potential. The thing is, Clare is not just like any other teenager, as made clear in a ten-years-earlier prologue in which her mom (Elisabeth Röhm) commits suicide Magically transporting to some ideal life is tempting, and it may feel perfect at first, but there is bound to be some nagging feeling that will not go away about how wrong this impossible wish fulfillment is. You do not need a vengeful spirit to make that clear, but as horror metaphors go, it’s a handy one. Playing around with it for an hour and a half could be quite the unsettling trip; Wish Upon gives us just a taste.

Wish Upon is Recommended If You Like: Means Girls crossed with The Grudge, the Final Destination series

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Smegmas


This Is a Movie Review: Going in Style

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This review was originally published on News Cult in April 2017.

Starring: Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Alan Arkin

Director: Zach Braff

Running Time: 96 Minutes

Rating: April 7, 2017

Release Date: PG-13 for Shooting Blanks in One Way and Not Shooting Blanks in Another

There is a cottage industry of our finest living octogenarian thespians behaving badly, whether living it up in Vegas or spending spring break with their grandkids fishing for tail. Going in Style at first glance appears the next entry in this genre, what with its premise of retirees making their last big mark by pulling off a bank robbery. As these old coots throw on their Rat Pack masks, are we supposed to be thinking, “Somebody’s watched Point Break one too many times”? Not exactly. This is not a tale of wish fulfillment debauchery. Instead, Going in Style takes its opening cue from much more Oscar-friendly territory (as well as the 1979 original of the same name starring George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg).

Longtime friends and factory co-workers Joe (Michael Caine), Willie (Morgan Freeman), and Al (Alan Arkin) are facing a variety of ills: foreclosure for Joe, kidney failure for Willie, and disappearing pensions for all three. They do not vocalize a sense of economic betrayal from their country, but the subtext is clear. This is the same message as last year’s neo-Western Hell or High Water: when even the local banks are strictly aligned with the global monied class, robbery is all that those left behind can turn to. Going in Style mostly avoids that bleakness, though not at first. The first 15 minutes or so are all about underscoring the piling up of debt and very real threat of homelessness for decent folks who have put in decades of honest employment.

But with the codgers at its center, a depressing consistency would be truly beyond the pale. The dialogue acknowledges that safety net, as these intrepid thieves figure that even if they do get caught, they will at least be guaranteed a bed, three meals a day, and better health care than they are used to. There is a deep well of fantastic realism, or realistic fantasy, as it were, at play. We know Joe, Willie, and Al will get away with it, and it is essentially a victimless crime. Their temptation into a solution of crime is presented less as a trip to the dark side and more as open-mindedness and ingenuity. But surely the loss of millions cannot be so easily brushed off.

It is probably not necessary to take too harsh a moral stance against Going in Style, as I imagine that its target audience understands that stealing is wrong and heists are not so easily pulled off in real life. But it would be preferable if the film had a more clearly discernible message. Is it advocating for getting what you’re owed by any means necessary, becoming a Robin Hood of sorts, or actually just prescribing robbery in extreme circumstances? As it stands, it is a whimsical wisp propelled along by plenty of capable people that tiptoes around some explosive territory.

Going in Style is Recommended If You Like: Hell or High Water but thought it was missing a dance scene set to “Single Ladies”

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 “Young Men”