Movie Review: Cate Blanchett Brings Us All Along to Antarctica in the Low-Key Unique ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’

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CREDIT: Wilson Webb/Annapurna Pictures

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Emma Nelson, Kristen Wiig, Judy Greer, James Urbaniak, Laurence Fishburne

Director: Richard Linklater

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Arguments Between Neighbors and Family Members

Release Date: August 16, 2019

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is the sort of movie that I don’t want to say whether it’s good or bad. I’d rather just talk about what makes it unique. Because when you see more than a hundred movies per year like I do, uniqueness can seem like an endangered species, so when I come across it, I feel compelled to deconstruct it. First off, this movie doesn’t fully realize its premise until about two-thirds of the way through its running time – and that’s not a criticism! The title would seem to suggest that architect Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett) runs right off from her family as fast as she can, but it actually takes quite a while until she is on her own in Antarctica. And get this – that destination was originally meant to be a family trip with her husband Elgin (Billy Crudup) and daughter Bee (Emma Nelson), so it’s not exactly like it’s supposed to be the most unpredictable hiding place.

You may have noticed that I mentioned that Bernadette is an architect, and that’s significant because this is a movie that cares A LOT about architecture. Director Richard Linklater apparently has a hidden passion for construction. Either that or he did his homework, because significant chunks of Where’d You Go, Bernadette could pass for an architecture mockumentary. The other major upending of expectations comes in the examination of Bernadette’s mental breakdown, or lack thereof. Everyone in her life is a little worried about her, but it turns out that the best solution is much less drastic – and much more fulfilling – than this genre has us conditioned to anticipate.

Pretty much everything about Where’d You Go, Bernadette is both slightly off-key and generally pleasant. A marriage that looks like it’s on the brink of disaster is actually quite healthy! Kristen Wiig plays a queen bee suburban mom who it turns out is actually a genuine human being! There’s a dog named Ice Cream! Anyone who is mildly adventurous will find something to enjoy.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is Recommended If You Like: Crucial James Urbaniak Supporting Performances

Grade: Not Applicable out of 5 Russian Identity Thieves

Movie Review: ‘John Wick: Chapter 3’ Might Be the Loudest Action Movie Ever Made

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CREDIT: Niko Tavernise

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Laurence Fishburne, Mark Dacascos, Asia Kate Dillon, Lance Reddick, Anjelica Huston, Ian McShane, Saïd Taghmaoui, Jason Mantzoukas, Robin Lord Taylor

Director: Chad Stahelski

Running Time: 131 Minutes

Rating: R for Traditional and Improvised Weaponry Galore

Release Date: May 17, 2019

Either I have really sensitive ears, or other critics and action film buffs have had their hearing blown out by cinematic cacophony.

The first John Wick had some cool ideas about how a worldwide network of assassins would be managed and litigated, but it was sloppily edited and so, so overwhelmingly loud. (It’s possible that the theater I saw it in didn’t have the sound properly calibrated, but I’ve seen plenty of movies in that theater before and after in which that hasn’t been an issue.) Then Chapter 2 came along and cleaned up those execution snafus.* But now Chapter 3 is backsliding, or just leaning too hard into the danger zone. The outrageously choreographed fight sequences are still shot gracefully, but the soundtrack is now oppressive at Guinness record-shattering levels. (*-Although, looking back at my review of Chapter 2, I am reminded that this trilogy actually never quieted down.)

This edition opens with Keanu Reeves and a fellow assassin breaking every possible glass surface within reach, and the volume for that level of destruction never lets up. And look, I could forgive this movie my eardrums getting blown out if everything else were satisfying, but I just don’t really much care about the mess that Wick has gotten himself mucked up in. He’s run afoul of some sacred rules, and now he and whoever’s helped him must atone rather ritualistically, but I just want to shout to the enforcers, “Get over yourselves!”

At least the performances remain commendably committed. Reeves, Ian McShane, and Laurence Fishburne are as righteous as you remember them. Among the newcomers, Asia Kate Dillon commands respect in the rather thankless task as the uber-rules-respecting adjudicator, while Jason Mantzoukas is a little helper fellow who is nowhere near as unhinged as his typical roles, though he does wonders with his face acting. That’s some subtlety that could have been quite useful elsewhere in this overloaded buffet of gore.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is Recommended If You: Have less sensitive hearing than I do

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Shattered Windows

This Is a Movie Review: In ‘The Mule,’ Clint Eastwood is an Unlikely Drug Trafficker Who Complains About the Internet

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CREDIT: Warner Bros.

This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2018.

Starring: Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Peña, Dianne Wiest, Andy García, Isabel Eastwood, Taissa Farmiga, Ignacio Serricchio, Eugene Cordero

Director: Clint Eastwood

Running Time: 116 Minutes

Rating: R for Casual Racist Slurs and Showing Someone a Good Time (*Wink Wink*) for the Night

Release Date: December 14, 2018

The Mule does not need to feature casual racism and crankiness about how young people are ruining everything with their newfangled technology, but it stars and is directed by Clint Eastwood, so what are you gonna do? At this point in time, he can at least be entertaining as a self-parody. This is, after all, a movie in which he literally says “if you can’t open a fruit box without calling the Internet” and “Damn Internet, it ruins everything.” Or maybe this ultimate cinematic tough guy is actually self-aware and toying around with his reputation. In one moment, when he calls a black family “Negroes” while helping them change a tire, he does get chided for his ignorance. But it isn’t like that scene even needs to exist. Nor does there need to be a scene when he makes a connection with lesbian motorcyclists who proudly call themselves “dykes on bikes.” If The Mule is woke, it is simplistically so, which is fairly amusing, but also a little concerning.

There is a level of professionalism but also a lack of consideration that makes The Mule entertaining and imbues it with a strong message but also renders it shallow. The script is based on a New York Times article about the real-life story of Leo Sharp, who in his 80s became a drug mule for the Sinaloa Cartel. Eastwood plays Earl Stone, a fictionalized version of Sharp. He has spent decades dedicating himself to his horticulture career at the expense of his family, and now that the bottom has dropped out on his business, he finds himself turning to a much more lucrative and much more illegal profession.

The story of a man who never made time for his wife and daughter because he was too focused on his flowers is certainly different, but everything else about The Mule is predictable, sometimes worryingly so. Most of the characters who are people of color are cartel members, while all of the white characters are either Earl and his friends and family or DEA agents. That in and of itself is not wrong as it may very well reflect reality, but in 2018 it feels tone deaf not to more carefully consider that racial divide. And that really is a shame in this case, because The Mule actually does appear interested in taking a more unique approach to the material. The plot hinges on Earl realizing that it is never too late to be a good spouse and parent, a lesson he attempts to impart to his cartel handlers and the DEA agent on his tail (Bradley Cooper). It is a fascinating story on its own that also comes across on screen as mostly fascinating, but it’s spiked with a few too many shots of Eastwood crankiness.

The Mule is Recommended If You Like: The Crankiness and Casual Racism of Late-Era Clint Eastwood

Grade: 3 out of 5 Dykes on Bikes for Entertainment Value/2 out of 5 Stereotypes for Social Value

 

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’ Keeps It Cool for the Summer

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CREDIT: Disney/Marvel Films

This review was originally posted on News Cult in July 2018.

Starring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Michael Peña, Walton Goggins, Abby Ryder Fortson, Bobby Cannavale, Judy Greer, Hannah John-Kamen, Laurence Fishburne, Tip “T.I.” Harris, David Dastmalchian, Michelle Pfeiffer, Randall Park

Director: Peyton Reed

Running Time: 118 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Large-Scale and Small-Scale Action Movie Destruction

Release Date: July 6, 2018

Ant-Man and the Wasp has left me feeling a lot more peaceful than other recent Marvel movies. I would it put about on the same quality level as Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok, but those blockbusters left me with nagging bits of emptiness, whereas Paul Rudd and company just give off good vibes. That is partly a function of my own expectations, but it is also a matter of how this franchise and its sub-franchises are promoted. The excursions to Wakanda and the garbage planet promised that they would be unprecedented game-changers. Whether or not they lived up to that hype, it is hard to match the buoyancy of their ad campaigns, and it takes effort for audiences to avoid every commercial. But with the original Ant-Man and now with The Wasp, you can just come in, be chill, and not have to worry about it being the best movie ever.

Director Peyton Reed and his team of five credited screenwriters (including Rudd) maintain those good vibes by allowing for some conflict, but avoiding true evil, and establishing that those who are at odds are ultimately really on the same team as each other. The main story thrust is the recovery of Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the “Quantum Realm,” a subatomic space where the normal laws of space and time do not apply. Her husband Hank (Michael Douglas) and daughter Janet, aka the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), have the science skills to track her down, but they need the help of Ant-Man Scott Lang, as his previous venture into and escape from the Quantum Realm has allowed Janet to establish him as a point of contact. Standing in their way is a black market dealer (Walton Goggins), who sniffs out a big potential profit, but he does not have the killer instinct to tear them down. More serious are those who represent the skeletons in Hank’s closet, but their threat is neutralized by the ultimate realization that they can solve each other’s problems together.

A-M and the W has genuine, successful humor to match its laid-back style. The comedy in Marvel movies often has the cadence of a joke without actually being funny, but here there is a cast that is trained to find the laughter. Rudd obviously has more of a comedy background than any other Marvel headliner. Michael Peña delivers another round of his motor-mouthed, very detail-oriented storytelling. And the most delightful subplot features Fresh Off the Boat‘s Randall Park as a fastidious FBI agent hounding Scott while he remains under house arrest. If their jobs did not require them to be enemies, they would be friends for the ages.

It is certainly odd that Ant-Man and the Wasp arrives in the apocalyptic wake of Infinity War, but die-hard MCU fans will be happy to discover that the connective tissue is clear and satisfying. And those who are tired of every superhero movie being about the end of the world will be happy that that connectivity does not get in the way of everyone just having a good time.

Ant-Man and the Wasp is Recommended If You Like: The Marvel Cinematic Universe but with lower stakes

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Quantum Realms

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Last Flag Flying’ Hashes Out the Personal Effects of War with Endless Conversations

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CREDIT: Wilson Webb/Lionsgate

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

Starring: Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne

Director: Richard Linklater

Running Time: 124 Minutes

Rating: R for Dropping Some Profanity with Your Buds

Release Date: November 3, 2017 (Limited)/Expands Nationwide November 17, 2017

Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying is a sequel to Hal Ashby’s 1973 film The Last Detail, but you wouldn’t know that from any of the promotional materials, which make no mention of the earlier flick. You also wouldn’t know it from looking at the character names, which are not consistent between the two films. I have not seen The Last Detail, but as far as I can gather, Bryan Cranston is playing a version of a character played by Jack Nicholson, Laurence Fishburne is doing a spin on Otis Young, and Steve Carell is updating a role by (of all people) Randy Quaid. Anyway, as for the actual narrative of Last Flag Flying, all this background info is basically just as a curiosity, as this unofficial sequel stands perfectly well enough on its own.

If you were to go into Last Flag Flying completely unaware of The Last Detail (and presumably many people will), you would possibly find yourself thinking, “Hey! There’s plenty of room to craft a prequel out of this story.” Vietnam War veterans Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Carell), Sal Nealon (Cranston), and Richard Mueller (Fishburne) are psychologically torn asunder but forever bound by an incident at the end of their time in the same Marine unit. Doc committed a petty crime, Sal and Mueller helped discipline him, and he spent a couple years in a military prison. There is no ill will between the three of them, but they have gone decades without seeing each other. Now they are reuniting in a way that reunions so often unfortunately happen. Doc’s son has followed his father into the Marines, enlisting for the Iraq War, where he has died in an ambush. With few close family or friends, Doc turns to his old service buddies to help escort his son’s body to the funeral.

What follows is a trip from Virginia to New Hampshire. Instead of wide open shots of the open road we get cramped moments along the heavily trafficked Mid-Atlantic and northeast United States. Also, talking. Lots and lots of talking. Doc, Sal, and Mueller shoot the shit, air out grievances, ask pressing philosophical questions about their country and life and death, and generally strengthen an eternal bond of friendship.

While it may not necessarily be their most well-known trademark, all three stars are notable for their oratory. Just consider Cranston’s deadly commands as Walter White, Carell’s wild verbal dexterity in the likes of The Daily Show and Bruce Almighty, or Fishburne’s spellbinding declarations in The Matrix. For the most part, Last Flag plays its conversations in a much more mild key than those examples, but the effects are still quite pressing. There are questions about the point of even venturing into Iraq. It’s still 2003, thus before the falsification of evidence that led to this war has fully been revealed, so these worries are not about especially particular objections, but they are no less pressing. Running through the bloodstream of this film is a very human desire for simple respect, to be told straight what is actually going on. Last Flag Flying is for anyone who values forthrightness, and for anyone who can share in the joy of three middle-aged guys buying their very first cell phones in the middle of Manhattan.

Last Flag Flying is Recommended If You Like: The Big Chill, My Dinner with Andre, Catching up with old friends.

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Black Men Named Richard

This Is a Movie Review: John Wick: Chapter 2

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

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Riccardo Scamarcio, Common, Ruby Rose, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne

Director: Chad Stahelski

Running Time: 122 Minutes

Rating: R for BANG! BANG! BANG!

Release Date: February 10, 2017

The first John Wick was one of the loudest theatrical experiences I have ever endured. I did not encounter this complaint from anyone else, but I’m fairly certain I was not going insane. It’s possible that this particular auditorium’s sound mix was way out of proportion, but I am intimately familiar with that theater, so that explanation is unlikely. With Chapter 2 now on the way, I can safely say I feel vindicated about calling this franchise the most aurally assaulting around.

This hitman free-for-all kicks off with engines revving and metal crashing in an opening car chase that leaves you no opportunity to get your bearings. You might have enough time to put your hands over your ears, but barely. At least there appears to be a rhythm to the volume – a physical one, that is. In conclusion, I have spent two paragraphs explaining that my favorite part of John Wick: Chapter 2 is how great a massage it gave me, via the vibrations caused by the cacophony. I may have some moral qualms about deriving relaxation from such wanton violence, but this is a patently fantastical universe (despite its lived-in New York trappings), so we can skate around that a bit.

The concepts that the first John Wick introduced to the action genre are ones for the ages. The global hitman battle royale is like a magical underworld that exists within the shadows. Plus, the hotel serving these assassins, in which all killing is forbidden, with Concierge Lance Reddick whisking us in, is a rich setup for comic relief. But it was all undone by sloppy editing that I could not believe an otherwise sophisticated flick thought it could get away with. Maybe a new hand on the controls is just what was needed, as Evan Schiff takes over for Elísabet Ronalds, and there is a whole lot more patience in the cuts. If Keanu Reeves is going to shove a pencil in one guy’s ear and another guy’s neck, we want to be able to see it. And in Chapter 2, we see EVERYTHING.

John Wick films are less about plot and more about setup. In this edition, Wick is forced to repay his debt, but it proves to be a trick to make him vulnerable. This is all just an excuse to get to the action, and it is effective. Wick’s reputation is an almost supernaturally skilled killer, often discussed in hushed tones and referred to as “The Boogeyman.” Yet his actual name is also repeated ad infinitum. The highest compliment I can pay this movie is that the action is so relentlessly intense that that lapse in logic does not matter.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is Recommended If You Like: The first John Wick But Wish It Had Been Edited Better, Laurence Fishburne Shouting to the Heavens

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Million Dollar Bounties