‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ Takes the Webslinger to New Heights

Spiderman Into The Spiderverse poster

Alongside Superman and Batman, Spider-Man is one of my most favorite comic book characters. Peter Parker was an ordinary teenager before he got bit by a genetically modified spider, and from there he was gifted with super powers anyone would be envious to have. But in the process, he learns that with great power comes great responsibility, and this includes leaving the love of his life, be it Mary Jane or Gwen Stacy, at a distance in order to keep her safe from his devious enemies. While it must be very cool to be Spider-Man, it is also a very lonely existence as he needs to keep the people he is closest to in the dark as their safety will always be at risk once his identity is revealed to all.

One of the real joys of watching “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is realizing Peter Parker’s existence is not as lonely as we believed it to be. While attempting to thwart the efforts of Wilson Fisk/Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) who is using a particle accelerator to access parallel universes in an effort to bring back his deceased wife and son, we learn there are many different versions of Spider-Man here, there and everywhere, and there is something very reassuring about Peter realizing he is not the only one of his kind.

The main character here is Miles Morales (“Dope” star Shameik Moore), an African-American teenager who is at ease in his inner-city neighborhood, but struggles to fit in at the elite boarding school he was enrolled in following a well-received essay he wrote. Miles wants to fulfill the expectations of his police officer father Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry) and his nurse mother Rio Morales (Lauren Valez), but he looks to his beloved uncle Aaron Davis (Mahershala Ali) to encourage his creative side more than anyone else.

As you can expect, Miles also gets bitten by a radioactive spider and becomes the superhero he admires, Spider-Man, but he is of course not the least bit ready to take on such a part. Who would be anyway? But when the real Peter Parker is eliminated with extreme prejudice by Kingpin, Miles has no choice but to take his place even as he passes off the changes in his body as being a part of puberty. If such things were easily explainable, the realm of adolescence would be easier to live through.

Miles does however get help from Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), but being a Spider-Man from an alternate universe, he is not the equivalent of the one portrayed in previous movies by Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland. This Peter has gained a lot of weight and is hopelessly alone after a painful divorce from Mary Jane, and he is not quick to help Miles on the superhero journey he himself has taken, but he slowly becomes enamored at Miles’ spirit and determination to where he ends up helping him put an end to Kingpin’s evil and selfish reign.

With the many parallel universes exposed, we get introduced to the different incarnations of the webslinger which include Gwen Stacy and her spunky alter-ego Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), Peter Porker and the gleefully animated Spider-Ham (the hilarious John Mulaney), the young Japanese girl Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) who hails from an anime universe where she pilots a biochemical suit with a radioactive spider, and the dark and monochromatic Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage in a truly inspired voiceover). Seeing them all interact with one another here adds more heart and laughs to an already highly entertaining film.

The late Stan Lee, who does have an animated cameo here, once said Peter Parker should always be white, but that he wouldn’t have minded if the character were originally “black, a Latino, an Indian or anything else.” What this movie shows us is how anyone can be Spider-Man, and there’s something truly inspiring about that as superhero roles can at times feel ridiculously limited. It also helps that this animated movie comes on the heels of the brilliant “Black Panther” and “Wonder Woman” as the role of superhero is no longer, and never should have been, limited to one gender or ethnicity, and this was especially the case when it came to battling Thanos in “Avengers: Infinity War.”

I was not sure what to expect when walking into “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” as the thought of an animated “Spider-Man” seemed a little far-fetched and seemed like another attempt by Sony and Columbia Pictures to create a cinematic universe a la “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” and we all know how that one turned out. In a way it is satirical as it plays around with many comic book tropes and has fun dealing with the web-slinger at his best and worst. The filmmakers even take a hilarious dig at the character’s emo-dance from “Spider-Man 3” which Peter Parker is quick to distance himself from (can you blame him?).

But what makes this movie so good is how deeply it invests us in this particular Spider-Man’s life. Miles Morales is not just another Peter Parker clone as he still has his mom and dad, and he is forced to live in two different worlds the same way Amandla Stenberg’s character had to in “The Hate U Give.” While I have long since grown tired of origin movies which deal with a superhero’s beginning as we know they will eventually accept their anointed role, this one rings true emotionally as we watch Miles be understandably hesitant about becoming the next Spider-Man, but his transition from someone blaming his body changes on puberty to a young man eager to save his universe from the devious acts of Kingpin is never less than compelling.

It really feels great to see Spider-Man on a roll right now. Following the much-too-soon reboot known as “The Amazing Spider-Man,” the webslinger made a terrific rebound in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and had one of the most achingly emotional moments in the “Empire Strikes Back” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Avengers: Infinity War.” In a time where the franchises of “Star Trek” and “Halloween” seek to alter the timelines of their iconic characters to take things in another direction, it’ll be interesting to see where Spider-Man will go from here. “Spider-Man: Far from Home” is arriving in theaters next year, and I imagine we will see him again in “Avengers: Endgame.” Whatever the case, it puts a smile on my face to see Peter Parker and his alter-ego continue to be infinitely popular in pop culture as this is a hero blessed with super powers as well as with the foresight of the importance of responsibilities. Regardless of whoever takes on the role of Spider-Man, we come out of this movie with the solid belief said person will take it seriously, and we have to be thankful for that.

And yes, there are post-credit scenes for you to enjoy and, like “Once Upon a Deadpool,” this one features a thoughtful tribute to Stan Lee. May his legacy never be forgotten.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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‘The Equalizer 2’ is More of the Same, and That’s Just Fine With Me

The Equalizer 2 movie poster

It’s amazing how Denzel Washington has gone through his career without ever having made a sequel. Then again, do many of his films cry out for one? “Glory” and “Training Day,” didn’t leave much room for follow-ups as the characters he played met a very violent end. Last I checked, William Shakespeare never penned a sequel to “Much Ado About Nothing.” “The Pelican Brief,” “Philadelphia,” “Courage Under Fire” and “Crimson Tide” tell self-contained stories which are perfectly resolved at their conclusions. “Unstoppable” came to a full stop at the end to where a continuation would have insultingly involved another runaway train. As for “Remember the Titans,” we still remember them 18 years later, so there’s no need for a sequel to remind us of what we never forgot about in the first place. And regardless of what its title may imply, “Malcolm X” is not a sequel to anything.

But with “The Equalizer’s” Robert McCall, Washington has found a character whose story can last beyond one movie, and this was made clear in the final scene where he replied to someone’s plea for help over the internet. Now we have “The Equalizer 2” which reteams Washington with director Antoine Fuqua for another round of brutal retribution against those foolish enough to cross McCall’s path. While not much is different this time out, this sequel still proves to be as entertaining and thrilling as its predecessor.

We catch up with McCall who still resides in Boston, Massachusetts but now works as a driver for Lyft. This particular job allows McCall to befriend people like Sam Rubinstein (Orson Bean), a Holocaust survivor who is still trying to come to grips with what he has lost. Rubinstein also gives McCall an invaluable piece of advice which rings ever so true:

“Be nice to anyone who has access to your toothbrush.”

Among McCall’s victims this time around are a group of men who have kidnapped a little girl, and a bunch of young men afflicted with white privilege that have taken advantage of a female intern. Once again, these characters think they have McCall figured out and consider him as someone way past his prime, but we all know he is going to leave them in a world of pain because that’s why we paid money to see this sequel. The question is, will he take them out in 15 seconds or 29? Either way, McCall has found a very effective method to obtain a five-star rating from a Lyft passenger. Whether he gets a tip on top of that remains to be seen.

Things, however, get very personal for McCall when he learns his dear friend Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo) has been murdered while on assignment in Brussels, Belgium. The attack on Susan is especially brutal, but it’s nice to see her get a few punches in. With “The Equalizer 2,” Leo gets to remind us how she once portrayed one of television’s most unforgettable female police detectives, Sgt. Kay Howard, on “Homicide: Life on the Street” as she inflicts painful scars on her attackers. While at the press screening I wanted to yell out “Kay Howard lives!” But knowing from the trailers how Susan was going to meet a tragic end left me with anxiety and some despair as her fate was clearly sealed.

As you can expect, McCall goes on a mission of revenge which leads him to meet up and work with a former partner of his from the CIA, Dave York (Pedro Pascal). What he discovers is a complex web of corruption in which loose ends are being tied up to where the perpetrators are higher up the government ladder than he realized. Watching certain characters get eliminated in ways they do not see coming reminded me of what Captain James T. Kirk said in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country:”

“First rule of assassination, kill the assassins.”

Denzel is simply the best, and he return to the role of Robert McCall as if he just made the original film yesterday. Is it even possible for this Oscar-winning actor to disappoint us? Well, anything is possible, but seeing him in the scene where he takes young Miles (Ashton Sanders), an aspiring artist, aside and gives him a strong lecture about the dangers of gang life reminds us why he is one of the best actors working. We have seen this scene of an older man telling a young one not to join a gang many, many times before, but Denzel brings a raw emotional power to this one which makes it feel as visceral as when Laurence Fishburne demanded Cuba Gooding Jr. give him back his gun in “Boyz n the Hood.”

Ashton Sanders proves to be a strong addition to “The Equalizer” franchise as he portrays Miles as someone clearly caught between two worlds and unsure how to navigate either of them. We learn his brother was senselessly murdered, and he looks to be on the hustle when it comes to painting buildings and apartments, something McCall sees right through. Ashton also figures in one of this movie’s most suspenseful scenes when Miles is trapped in McCall’s apartment as a couple of assassins break in. Fuqua wrings all the suspense out of this scene to excellent effect, and it left me pinned to my seat as I began to feel as unsafe as Miles did.

Fuqua has since proven to be a top-notch action film director as he takes average set pieces in formulaic motion pictures and gives them a jolt of energy and tension. Right from the opening sequence on a train in Istanbul, Fuqua shows once again how he and Denzel mean business, and he gives us a number of thrilling moments throughout like when McCall fights a knife-wielding Lyft passenger while trying to avoid oncoming traffic, or when he faces off against a trio of bad guys whom he promises to terminate with extreme prejudice.

“The Equalizer 2” culminates in an action set piece much like the one in the first film as McCall leads his pursuers into territory he is far more familiar with than they are. Last time it was in a hardware store, and this time it’s at seaside town which is getting battered by severe winds and heavy rainfall. But whereas those Russian gangsters were too late to discover how out of their league they were, McCall now finds himself hunted by those with the same military training. As a result, the odds are even and this makes the sequel’s climax especially thrilling.

Also returning for this sequel is screenwriter Richard Wenk who infuses scenes with subversive jabs I could not ignore. When one military character talks about how he was essentially cut off by the government to where he was forced to do things he never would have done otherwise, I was reminded of how politicians kept telling us to support our troops during wartime and then would later cut their veteran benefits. Wenk is certainly not out to bash us over the head with any political statements, but it is little moments like those which provoke my consciousness to a strong extent.

And Wenk once again has McCall reading a number of classic books among which, quite appropriately, is Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.”

Like I said, “The Equalizer 2” is basically more of the same, but I was fine with that as Washington and Fuqua are simply out to give us an action-packed thriller, and they have succeeded once again. If there is to be a third “Equalizer” movie with these two on board, I would certainly welcome it.

Looking back, it’s almost a shame they didn’t make McCall an Uber driver. Just imagine how he would have reacted to his earnings statement as Uber is known for taking a ridiculously high percentage from their drivers. This could have resulted in a terrific climax in which McCall visits the company’s corporate headquarters and tells the CEO, “I understand you pay more attention to your profit motive than to the safety of your drivers.” If there is anyone who could punish Uber for this and make them update their policies for the drivers’ benefit, it would definitely be McCall!

* * * out of * * * *

‘The Equalizer’ Reminds Us Never to Mess with Denzel Washington

The Equalizer movie poster

When actors get to a certain point, they find themselves playing older men with a violent past which they have long since renounced, but we know they will jump back into action when the occasion arises. Whether it’s Liam Neeson in “Taken,” Sean Penn in “The Gunman,” Keanu Reeves in “John Wick” or even Clint Eastwood in “Unforgiven,” these characters end up falling back into their violent ways as life has left them little else to fall back on. A song by Eminem, “Guts Over Fear,” spells this out perfectly:

“It’s too late to start over. This is the only thing I know.”

This is certainly the case for Robert McCall, the main character of “The Equalizer” which was a popular show from the 1980’s. Now Denzel Washington makes this character his own in this cinematic adaptation which shows McCall leading a decent life at a Home Depot-like store named Home Mart where he befriends its many employees, and who spends his time outside work at his bare apartment or at the local diner reading a book. But a look into his eyes tells of a dark past he would rather not tell you about, and we all know this past is going to come roaring back.

This dark past comes to the surface when Alina (Chloe Grace Moretz), a teenage prostitute McCall becomes friendly with, ends up in the hospital after a severe beating. Seeing the damage done to her, McCall goes to the Russian mobsters who employed her to beg for her freedom. Even after he presents them with an envelope filled with over nine thousand dollars in cash, they are quick to dismiss him as just some old guy who is way past his prime. Unlike the “John Wick” movies where the villains react in embarrassment upon realizing who they inadvertently pissed off, the antagonists of “The Equalizer” have yet to realize how brutal McCall as they believe youth counts for more than age. By the time they come to see their mistake, the chance to make an apology is quickly rendered moot. Just ask the man whom McCall forcefully shoves a corkscrew under his chin to where you can see it inside his mouth.

Of course, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and McCall’s actions have infuriated the Russian Mafia to where they send out theiir chief enforcer Nicolai Itchenko (Marton Csokas) to deal with the situation. It is important to note one of the books McCall reads is Ernest Hemmingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” which is about an aging Cuban fisherman who struggles to catch a giant marlin out in the Gulf Stream. As the book begins, the fisherman has been unable to catch a fish for over 80 days, and “The Equalizer” starts with McCall leading a peaceful life which suggests he has not beaten the crap out of anyone for a long, long time. But we all know a giant marlin of sorts will be thrown into his path, and we are left wondering just how badly his antagonists will get their due justice.

There is no denying Washington is one of the best film actors ever, and “The Equalizer” could not have come to him at a better time. His career has lasted for several decades, and he has surpassed the point where he has nothing else left to prove. Washington was 59 when he played Robert McCall, and helps him give the character more gravitas as he now has the face of a man who has seen more than any person should in life. All he has to do is give off a look with his eyes or speak words with his still smooth voice to let us know he means business. And when he starts the timer on his watch of his, we know things are about to get nasty.

Watching “The Equalizer” reminded me of “The Gunman” which starred Sean Penn as a former special forces officer and mercenary whom we see at points apologizing to others for being so good at killing people, a skill he wishes he was never taught. Penn is another one of our finest actors, but his performance was laughable as his character displayed himself in a way which felt insulting to our intelligence. Washington, however, does not make this same mistake in playing McCall. There’s a scene in which he admits he has done things he is not proud of and that he gave up on doing them out of respect for his late wife, but a look into his eyes is enough to tell us he is not about to apologize for who he is and that he accepted this part of himself a long time ago.

“The Equalizer” also allows Washington to reteam with his “Training Day” director Antoine Fuqua, and this continues to be a match made in cinematic heaven. Let’s be honest, the plot of this movie is formulaic and hits all the notes we expect it to hit throughout, and we have a good idea of how things will turn out to where expect this to be a run of the mill action thriller. As long as it delivers the goods, this is enough.

Still, both Washington and Fuqua, along with screenwriter Richard Wenk, add their little touches to the material to where “The Equalizer” proves to be anything but average. Washington sells himself easily in this role, but he also adds a strong humanity to the character as we watch him help his friend Ralph (Johnny Skourtis) pass the security guard exam and keep a fellow employee calm while she is being robbed at gunpoint. Washington makes McCall a wonderfully rounded character in a way which could have come off as inescapably cheesy in the hands of another actor.

While Nicolai Itchenko comes off as just another overconfident gangster, let alone a Russian gangster, Fuqua gives Csokas some strong moments where a look at his tattoo-covered body reveals a man who has long since been rendered into a cold-hearted bastard to where any sense of empathy within him no longer exists. Csokas also has a scene where he stares off with Washington in the same way Al Pacino and Robert De Niro did in “Heat” as their characters try to figure the other one out, and he shows how deep Nicolai’s psychosis stretches in a way we do not often see in the typical action extravaganza.

Other actors make a sizable impact in their small roles, and it reinforces the saying of how there are no small roles, only small actors. David Harbour, before he became famous on “Stranger Things,” plays a corrupt cop whom McCall gives a chance to do the right thing in a coldly calculated way. Harbour makes the most of his moment opposite Washington when he yells out how life has given little in the way of choices to where he survives the only way he knows how. Sure, it may seem like a cliched moment, but Harbour sells it for all it is worth to where you cannot dismiss his performance as you walk out of the theater.

You even have Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo, two actors you can always depend on, showing up as Brian and Susan Plummer, a married couple and former CIA employees who were instrumental in McCall’s life and remain there for him in the aftermath of the tragedy he has suffered. Leo in particular brings a strong dramatic energy to her few scenes as she makes us see how Susan sympathizes with McCall’s situation to where she understands him in a way few others can or are willing to.

What I admired about Fuqua’s direction is that he has succeeded in making a slow burn thriller and not an action movie which hits the ground running like most do these days. Fuqua takes his time and is not quick to reveal everything about McCall to where the mystery of this man empowers the ultra-violent scenes to where we are constantly left on edge. When it comes to the movie’s climax at Home Mart, Fuqua keeps us as off-guard as the bad guys to where we cannot help but feel we are in their shoes as McCall takes them out with cruel precision. Ever since “Training Day,” this filmmaker has proven to be excellent at making action set pieces feel more visceral than they usually do, and he gets away with moving the story at a pace that seems unthinkable in today’s cinematic world which overflows with superheroes and comic book characters.

I’m not sure where I would place “The Equalizer” in the pantheon of Washington’s and Fuqua’s careers. It may not be among their best works, but it shows the care and intelligence they are willing to put into a typical genre film to where we got more out of the final product than we expect. I never did get the watch the television show which had Edward Woodward starring as Robert McCall, but I think it is safe to say Washington and Fuqua have taken this story and its main character and have safely made them their own.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’ Proves to Be a Powerful and Worthy Sequel

Sicario Day of the Soldado movie poster

Sicario” was one of the most intense cinematic experiences I have had in the past few years, and it was one of the best movies of 2015. When I heard a sequel was being made, I was excited but also a bit reserved as I soon learned Emily Blunt, Denis Villeneuve, Roger Deakins and the late Johann Johannsson would not be returning for it. Sure, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan were back for another round, but would this be enough? Sequels at times have an immense power to sully their predecessors in an unforgivable way, and I was praying this one would not be a mere cash in.

Well, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” (soldado is Spanish for soldier) doesn’t quite equal the brute force and honesty of its predecessor, but it does prove to be a very strong sequel. It also turns out there was a good reason to continue the stories of Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro) and Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). Whereas “Sicario” was about the militarization of the police, this sequel removes the policing aspect from it to reveal an even darker and more cynical take on the war on drugs and illegal immigration.

“Soldado” gets off to a brutal start as we watch three men enter a grocery store in Kansas City and blow themselves up. The way this scene is set up quickly reminded me of the take no prisoners attitude Villeneuve brought to “Sicario,” and this is made even clearer when one suicide bomber looks to spare a mother and child from certain death, and then does not. Like the original, “Soldado” is not about to offer its audience an easy way out of the harsh reality it presents here.

To combat this terrorism, which Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine) defines as “violence used to achieve a political goal,” the United States government gives Graver permission to use extreme measures in combating the Mexican cartels as they are believed to have smuggled Islamic terrorists across the U.S./Mexican border. Graver makes it clear he will need to get “dirty” in order to achieve the goals laid out to him, and considering what we have seen Graver pull off previously, we know things will get dirtier than ever. Seeing Riley tell Graver “dirty is exactly why you are here” makes this scene more chilling as it shows how complicit the U.S. government is prepared to be in bending the rules, and we also know they will be quick to deny any culpability just like the IMF does in “Mission: Impossible.”

Graver decides the best course of action is to start a war between the two drug cartels, and this involves the kidnapping of Isabela Reyes (Isabela Moner), the daughter of one of the cartel’s kingpins. To pull this off, Graver enlists the sicario (Spanish for hitman) Alejandro Gillick, who still hungers for revenge against those who murdered his family. The way these two handle this kidnapping is insidiously clever as they make Isabela believe they did not abduct her in an effort to mess with her head and keep the cartels fighting amongst themselves. Of course, the best laid plans are usually thwarted at the most unexpected moment.

I first off have to say how glad I am to see Del Toro and Brolin back for this sequel. Both actors have cracked and weathered faces which help to do a good portion of the acting for them as their characters have endured endless moral crises which more than shows on the surface of their skin. While many actors are desperate to look younger than their actual age, it’s a nice to see a pair who are not afraid to show the lines in their face. Besides, does it make sense to cast baby-faced models as characters who have seen more than they should in a lifetime? I think not.

In “Sicario,” we were reminded of how brilliant an actor Del Toro can be as he made Alejandro Gillick into a complex character whose soul is deeply wounded, but who still seeks vengeance on those who wronged him. Never does Del Toro have to raise his voice to show the power Alejandro has over others, and seeing him fire a dozen bullets into a cartel lawyer is a fascinating sight as he may seem calm on the surface, but there is still a seething rage which cannot be contained. Besides, when it comes to revenge, one bullet is never enough.

With Brolin, we know he can portray Matt Graver in a way few other actors can as his character interrogates suspects almost effortlessly and carries out secret missions with surgical precision. The Oscar-nominated actor continues to play Graver as a man who has long accepted the fact he has become a lot like the enemies he hunts down, and it marks another great performance from him in a year which has seen him dominate the screen in “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Deadpool 2.”

What I found especially fascinating about “Soldado” is how it examines a particular moral conundrum both Matt and Alejandro find themselves in. When their mission suddenly goes awry, the U.S. government cancels it and orders them ro erase all proof of their involvement in Mexican internal affairs. Of course, this also means assasinating Isabela Reyes, but while Matt is intent on cleaning up the mess he and his team have been caught up in, Alejandro is not about to murder her. Having seen many, many movies throughout my life, I have long since become familiar with the characters in them who are determined to do the right thing and yet end up paying a high price for this as their sins have yet to be paid off. Knowing this makes “Soldado” even more intense as I began to wonder how these characters would suffer before they would be freed from the damage they have wrought.

Speaking of Isabela, I was really impressed with the performance of Isabela Moner who makes this drug kingpin daughter a tough cookie right from the start. When we first meet her, she is fighting a fellow classmate and leaves her bloody and bruised. During a meeting with the principal, she knows he is in no position to expel her because of who she is, and that vicious look in her eyes is all you need to see who has the most power in that situation. When kidnapped, however, Moner makes her character’s predicament all the more palpable as she gets thrust into a violent situation beyond her control, and her reaction to it all feels unmistakably real. And like all my favorite young adult characters in movies, she comes to see through the bullshit adults are dishing out to her.

Directing “Soldado” is Italian filmmaker Stefano Sollima, best known for directing gritty crime movies like “ACAB – All Cops Are Bastards” and “Suburra” as well as episodes of the critically acclaimed television show “Gomorrah.” While Sollima is unable to match the existential dread Villeneuve brought to “Sicario,” he succeeds in grounding the story in the same brutal reality we were introduced to previously. Even when Sheridan’s screenplay looks to strand us in formulaic territory, Sollima makes seemingly predictable scenes especially intense as even he knows how brutal the war on drugs can be.

Taking over cinematography duties is Dariusz Wolski who is known for his work on the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, and who gave a very special look to Alex Proyas’ “The Crow” and “Dark City.” It’s near impossible to match the unique look Deakins gave “Sicario,” but Wolski manages to equal the brutal visuals and stark landscapes to where we cannot deny this movie takes place in a reality we like to keep a safe distance from.

Then there is the film score which is composed by Hildur Guðnadóttir, a classically trained Icelandic cellist who collaborated with Johannsson on “Sicario.” Suffice to say, the music ended up in good hands as Guðnadóttir’s has created themes which match the ominous power Johannsson gave us back in 2015, and he brings back “The Beast” theme with tremendous gusto as the harsh realism shown here feels more brutal and chaotic than ever before.

“Sicario: Day of the Soldado” had no real chance of equaling the original, and I accepted this fact as I walked into the theater. But in the end it doesn’t matter because what we got here is a really strong sequel which captures a great deal of the original’s intensity and blunt truths, and it makes for a compelling motion picture. There is already talk of a third “Sicario” movie, so here’s hoping this one does well at the box office to ensure this will happen. And if they can get Emily Blunt to appear in it, that would be great as well.

Granted, this sequel is coming out at an interesting time as politicians are calling for increased security at the border, and immigrants are either being denied entry to the United States because of the country they are coming from, or their children are being separated from them for political leverage. While many may point to one group of people or another as being the biggest problem America has to deal with, the “Sicario” movies show how widespread corruption is and how far it has spread. One key scene to remember in “Soldado” comes when Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez), a Mexican-American teenager and aspiring hitman, gets a ride back across the border, and his driver turns out to be a Caucasian woman with a baby in the backseat. As Miguel pays her, she is quick to tell him, “Give me a job that pays better and I’ll do it.”

In this day and age, it is not so much the truth which matters, but of who controls the narrative.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

The filmmakers dedicated this movie to memory of Johann Johannsson who died on February 9, 2018 at the age of 48. It is a real shame we lost him so soon as his work on “Sicario,” “Arrival” and “The Theory of Everything” was remarkable, and it would have been great to see what themes he would have continued composing had he lived. Rest in peace Johann.

‘Superfly’ Remake Has Little Reason For Existing

Superfly 2018 poster

The original “Super Fly” directed by Gordon Parks Jr. was a notable blaxploitation classic as it provided many advancements for African-Americans in show business. Many accused it of glamourizing the drug business and of drug dealing in general, but others saw its glorification of drug dealers as a critique of the civil rights movement’s failure to provide better opportunities for black America. Either way, it gave a lot for audiences to talk about, and it provided us with one of the greatest soundtracks of all time courtesy of Curtis Mayfield.

Now it is 2018, and we have the remake of the 1972 movie which the filmmakers have entitled “Superfly” because, you know, why separate the two words? While it made more sense to separate the words “super” and “fly” decades ago, the rules of grammar continue to change for no special reason. But while the original movie still resonates with audiences more than 45 years after its release, I walked out of this remake constantly saying to myself, what was the point? Updating a classic of any kind is one thing, but this “Superfly” has little reason to exist as it offers us the same old tale of a gangster who is looking to go straight after spending too much time in a life of crime, and it offers nothing new or fresh to this story. While it is never boring, this movie will not have the same staying power of its predecessor.

The story remains the same, but this time the action has been moved from New York to Atlanta, Georgia (or ATL as the locals like to call it). Playing Youngblood Priest is Trevor Jackson, a 21-year-old actor, singer and dancer whose taste in clothes and cars is almost upstaged by his silky head of hair. Priest has it all, and this includes a luxurious house which has a beautiful view of downtown Atlanta, a pair of loving and tough-minded girlfriends in Georgia (Lex Scott Davis) and Cynthia (Andrea Londo), and he drives around town in a super-expensive Lexus car which, unlike Ron O’Neal’s 1971 Cadillac Eldorado, needs no customization. One look at it is enough to give you an idea of how well-off Priest is to where putting a spoiler on his Lexus would just look stupid.

Yes, Priest is a career criminal who is now more serious than ever about leaving the Atlanta drug scene, but no one is about to make things easy for his departure, and this is especially the case when one particular drug deal goes horribly awry. From there, those who have seen the original “Super Fly” will not be surprised at the turns the story takes, and those who have not watched it will marvel at how convoluted things become as the remake heads to its largely unsurprising climax.

The first thing I got to say about “Superfly” is when it comes to Jackson, I cannot help but feel he is too young to play Priest. Jackson is not bad as he exhibits a natural charisma and does have the necessary aura of coolness Priest requires, but he never struck me as a gangster who has led a rough and tumble life. Instead, he looks more like someone who just entered the life to where he has yet to show off any of the scars which come with it. Alex Tse’s screenplay does make mention of how Priest started out hustling at the tender age of 11, but even with this realization, Jackson still looks like an intern who just entered this life.

The other big problem is Jackson is constantly upstaged by his fellow actors, several of whomwould have been more believable as Priest. Chief among them is Michael K. Williams, best known for playing Omar on “The Wire,” who plays Scatter, Priest’s chief drug supplier and martial arts teacher. The scene in which they spar with one another is one of “Superfly’s” best moments as their physical moves match up with their mental ones to where you can see them working out scenarios in their heads about surviving into the future. Williams has the look of someone who has worked in the Atlanta drug trade for many years, and he makes Scatter look like someone with more of a reason to retire from this life than Priest does. I think Williams would have been a better fit for the role of Priest, but I guess considerations in regards to demographics were taken into consideration here above all else.

Jason Mitchell, who was fantastic as Easy-E in “Straight Outta Compton,” steals one scene after another as Priest’s right-hand man, Eddie. He keeps you guessing as to what Eddie’s next move will be to where you constantly wonder where his loyalties lie. While Eddie seems eternally dedicated to Priest, Mitchell constantly gives you the sense he may bolt to the other side as being a supporting player in this trade can be infinitely frustrating at times, and his high energy performance is one of “Superfly’s” great delights.

Lex Scott Davis makes Georgia into a formidable girlfriend for Priest to where he needs her more than she needs him. Andrea Londo provides “Superfly” with its most alluring presence as Cynthia, Priest’s other girlfriend. From start to finish, Londo inhabits Cynthia to where she cannot be mistaken for anything other than a fierce self-provider who is more than prepared to fight to the death for her loved ones. Outkast’s Big Boi shows up as Mayor Atkins, a man whose political influence knows no bounds until Priest puts some directly in his path. And I have to single out Jennifer Morrison for her wonderfully wicked performance as the infinitely corrupt Detective Mason. She doesn’t hesitate to show far off to the dark side Mason is as she makes clear how quick she is to bend the rule of the law to her hardened heart’s content, and I could never take my eyes off her whenever she appeared onscreen.

Directing “Superfly” is Julien Christian Lutz, better known by the name of Director X. Whether or not this name is meant to define some sort of political belief I will leave for him to explain. X is best known for making music videos with Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Rhianna among others, and his trademark involves tweaking the letterbox format to where he plays with our expectations with glee. He crafts a strong opening sequence in which we follow Priest into a nightclub whose membership is clearly restricted to a select few, and it reminded me of the scene in Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” when Henry Hill and Karen entered the Copacabana nightclub through the back way. As we follow Priest into this particular nightclub, X makes it feel like an invitation into a side of life many of us never get to experience. After this sequence, everything ends up feeling inescapably routine.

There have been many gangster movies like “Scarface,” “Carlito’s Way,” “Sugar Hill” and “Light Sleeper” which depict their lives in a way which is endlessly fascinating even as the characters are looking to escape the life they were not necessarily aiming to enter. “Superfly,” however, feels stale in comparison as it offers nothing new or unique to the genre. As the movie went on, I kept wondering what the point was of remaking this blaxploitation classic. Many have said how the original glamourized crime and drug dealing, but this remake seems to do this to a shameless extent as the characters sport not only designer clothes, but designer guns which more lethal than the kind we usually see in movies. Whereas O’Neal’s Priest was moving through life the only way he knew how, Jackson’s Priest looks to live the life of the richest 1% in America as drug dealing provides what seems like an unrealistic route to it.

I cannot say I didn’t enjoy parts of “Superfly” as it is never the least bit boring, but this kind of movie has been played out too many times to where this remake serves no real purpose. After all these years, the most memorable thing to come out of the 1972 blaxploitation classic will be Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack, and even the filmmakers behind the remake could not escape this fact as one of his songs is featured here. If there was a reason to update this story for the year 2018, this is never made apparent here. Besides, there is bigger gangster for Priest to deal with in this day and age, and his name is Donald Trump.

* * out of * * * *

David Fincher’s ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ Stands On Its Own

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo 2011 poster

To call David Fincher’s “The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo” a remake of the excellent 2009 Swedish thriller wouldn’t be fair. Yes, it too is based on the runaway bestseller by the late Stieg Larsson, but Fincher has taken this material and, with the help of ace screenwriter Steve Zaillian, made it his own. His version proves to be one which is neither better nor worse than the original, but one which effectively stands on its own two feet to where any comparisons are not really necessary.

Daniel Craig takes on the role of Millennium Magazine writer Mikael Blomkvist who, at the movie’s start, has lost a libel case against the wealthy but corrupt businessman Hans-Erik Wennerström, a defeat which will seriously deplete his savings account. To escape the prying eyes of the press, he accepts an invitation from retired CEO Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of his great-niece Harriet. Vanger believes she may have been murdered by a member of his family, one which proves to be far more dysfunctional than any you may know.

Fincher’s film takes its time in establishing the characters of Blomkvist and Salander, who is played here by Rooney Mara. In fact, they don’t meet face to face until an hour into the movie. While studio executives were probably begging to see these two come together a lot sooner, it gives these actors time to establish their characters to where we feel like we understand them and are eager to see each work with one another.

Stepping outside of the James Bond franchise, Craig is terrific in conveying Blomkvist’s single-mindedness in finding answers which need to be uncovered. This is not a heroic character taking out the bad guys with relative ease, but one who is dedicated to finding out the truth and soon comes to realize just how much danger he is in. But as frightened as he is, Blomkvist is in no position to just give up and go home.

As for Mara, her performance as Lisbeth Salander is nothing short of a revelation. She must have given one hell of an audition for Fincher because very little in her resume, certainly not the bland “Nightmare on Elm Street” remake, could have prepared us for how good she is here. That is, except for her performance as Max Zuckerberg’s girlfriend who dumps him without remorse at the beginning of “The Social Network.”

Having watched Noomi Rapace inhabit this character previously, it was hard to think of another actress who could be anywhere as good in playing Lisbeth Salander. Mara, however, is more than up for the challenge, and her commitment in portraying this understandably anti-social character is utterly complete. I kept trying to find traces of Mara in this film, but I came out of it feeling like I never saw her. Instead, I felt like was watching Lisbeth Salander and no one else. Now this is a performance worthy of awards consideration!

Not to take away from Rapace’s star-making performance, but Mara has the advantage here of dealing with this character’s complexities which were not as deeply explored in the 2009 film. While Mara puts up a tough exterior, she simultaneously allows you to see those cracks of vulnerability hiding just beneath the surface. You fear for Lisbeth even though you know she eventually will kick ass.

There are many other great performances to be found here, and the actors have the fortune of playing characters which are given more depth in this version. Plummer has had quite the year with this and “Beginners,” and he gives Henrik a biting sense of humor which has aided him in dealing with the emotionally sordid history of his family. Robin Wright pulls off a surprisingly confident Swedish accent as Blomkvist’s co-worker and lover Erika Berger. Steven Berkoff of “Beverly Hills Cop” and “A Clockwork Orange” fame is a strong presence as Henrik’s lawyer Dirch Frode, Stellan Skarsgård remains one of the most reliable actors in movies with his performance as Martin Vanger, and Joely Richardson is fantastic as Anita.

Director of Photography Jeff Cronenweth does a superb job of capturing the frozen landscapes of Sweden to where you get frigid just looking at the screen. The scene where Blomkvist desperately tries to warm up the cottage Vagner has provided for him pushes this point across than it would ever need to. I haven’t shivered this much since after I finished swimming the 2011 Los Angeles Marathon.

Fincher’s movie also has a mesmerizing score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, both whom won the Best Original Score Oscar for their work on “The Social Network.” They give the story and its characters a sonic soundscape unlike the typical orchestral score, and it brilliantly captures the growing emotions which get stronger and stronger as the movie reaches its brutal climax.

Speaking of brutal, Fincher never sugarcoats this story or makes it easy to digest down to a PG-13 rating. In retrospect, I’m not sure there was a way he could as it deals with serial killers and features a vicious rape perpetrated on the main character. As with the majority of his movies, Fincher’s vision of the world is a dark one where the characters can be as cold as the snowy weather, but his vision also remains one of the most powerful in today’s cinematic world.

When it comes to comparing the 2009 and 2011 movies, this one has an upper hand in that it’s far more cinematic. The original Swedish film was actually a television miniseries which got shortened when released theatrically. That one remains a great thriller worth watching, but David Fincher’s version of “The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo” threatens to be more compelling as it builds on the original without taking away from it. I have yet to see him make a truly bad motion picture, and yes, that includes “Alien 3.”

* * * * out of * * * *

Lisbeth Salander is Resurrected in First Trailer for ‘The Girl in the Spider’s Web’

The Girl in the Spider's Web poster

Lisbeth Salander returns to the silver screen after a long hiatus (7 years to be exact), but you may notice something a bit different. Despite the success of David Fincher’s cinematic adaptation of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” studio executives felt it should have made more money than it did. After efforts to follow up “Dragon Tattoo” with the next book in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series, “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” fell through, Sony and MGM decided to do what they called a “soft reboot” of the franchise with “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” which is based on the book by David Lagercrantz who wrote it following Larsson’s death. Now with its just-released first trailer, we do see some changes, but I am also reminded of what Snake Plissken said in “Escape From LA:”

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Is this good or bad? Well, let’s take a look.

Taking over the role of Lisbeth Salander here is Claire Foy, an English actress best known for playing the young Queen Elizabeth II on Netflix’s “The Crown.” It is my understanding many people right now are having some difficulty accepting Foy as Salander because they can’t quite get the image of her playing the Queen out of their heads. I, on the other hand, do not have the same baggage as I have not watched “The Crown,” so perhaps this gives me an advantage here.

From her first appearance in this trailer, Foy owns this role with a strong confidence as we watch her subdue an abusive husband who has just used his wife as a punching bag like Ike Turner did with Tina Turner years ago. As Salander tells this spineless fraction of a man how she plans to transfer money from his accounts to the two prostitutes he was acquitted of beating up, we know right away this character is in the hands of the right actress. As the abused wife threatens to call security on Salander, the brilliant but antisocial heroine informs her she will be getting the rest of his money. The wife then puts down her phone, grabs her child and leaves. Just as she did with the hideous Nils Bjurman, Salander has cornered this man into a position he cannot undo, and we revel in her success in making him pay for the crimes he has committed. While I am bummed Rooney Mara, who earned an Oscar nomination for her work in Fincher’s film, is not returning, Foy looks to be a good choice to inhabit this unforgettable literary character.

The one question I did have, however, was this: how did Salander know this man would be in the exact position he needed to be in so she could capture him in a rope which would leave him dangling helplessly from the ceiling? It seems impossible she, or anyone else, would be able to pull this off, but then again this is Lisbeth Salander, and her brilliant mind has already managed to ensnare this man in a web of his own making to where he has no choice but to realize how karma is a bitch.

I was struck by the look of this movie from the trailer as it seems to match the icy cool visuals of Fincher’s film, and it makes this project look like much more than the average adaptation of a best-selling novel. Directing “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is Uruguayan filmmaker Fede Alvarez who helmed the “Evil Dead” remake which I thought was just okay. But then he gave us “Don’t Breathe,” a horror thriller which kept us on the edge of our seats in a way few movies do these days. The screenplay was written by him, Jay Basu and Steven Knight, the screenwriter behind “Dirty Pretty Things,” “Eastern Promises” and “Locke” which he also directed. Looking at this, it feels like this “soft reboot” is in good hands.

But the most interesting thing about “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is how it introduces Salander’s main antagonist. We hear a female narrator saying how Salander is “the righter of wrongs” and “the girl who hurts men who hurt women.” Those of us who have seen the previous cinematic adventures of Lisbeth Salander can attest to this, but the narrator reveals herself to be the one woman Salander did not succeed in saving, and as a result, she is quite bitter. This woman is revealed to be Camilla Salander, Lisbeth’s estranged twin sister who is played by Sylvia Hoeks, the same actress who gave us a most lethal replicant in “Blade Runner 2049.” Learning Lisbeth will face a female antagonist here instead of a male one makes this film seem especially intriguing to where this “soft reboot” seems like it was worth the effort. Mara, Daniel Craig, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross may be gone, but those taking over this franchise seem ready to give us something we will not easily forget.

“The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is set to premiere in theaters on November 9, 2018. Please check out the trailer below.

This ‘Peter Rabbit’ is Far From Ultimate

Peter Rabbit 2018 poster

After watching the trailer for Sony Pictures Animation’s “Peter Rabbit,” I kept thinking of the times when brands like KFC and Planter’s Peanuts among others changed their image in commercials to something more hip which made them look ever so desperate to appeal to a youthful demographic. It was both hilarious and cringe-inducing to see these popular brands reduce themselves to current trends they were never created for, and more often than not, it just revealed to us how tone deaf corporate executives can be in their quest for a profit. Those of you who have seen the “Peter Rabbit” trailer can agree this is not quite the same character we grew up reading about in those wonderfully imaginative books by Beatrix Potter. Now that I have seen the movie all the way through, I can confirm Ms. Potter is rolling over in her grave.

This “Peter Rabbit” is nothing more than a bastardization of those innocent tales as the filmmakers go out of their way to modernize this material to such an infinitely nauseating extent, and it hurt to see everyone trying way too hard to be clever. The harder everyone tries to be hip here, the more depressing this movie becomes as its story becomes increasingly convoluted and eventually turns in a poor man’s version of “Home Alone” as Peter tortures his nemesis in the same way Macauley Culkin tortured Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern.

Directed by Will Gluck who previously gave us the ill-advised remake of “Annie,” this movie isn’t so much an adaptation of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” as it is a story which exists outside of it. Even though Peter Rabbit (voiced by James Corden) came close to meeting his maker the last time he invaded Mr. McGregor’s vegetable garden, we see he has not learned his lesson as he continues to steal every single vegetable he gets his paws on. But when a new McGregor moves into town, things will become even more challenging for him and his furry friends.

The opening minutes of “Peter Rabbit” serve to introduce not only Peter, but also a number of Potter’s other creations like Benjamin Bunny (Matt Lucas), Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (Sia), Tommy Brock, Mr. Tod and Mr. Jeremy Fisher. Seeing this, I couldn’t help but think Sony Pictures was aiming to create a cinematic universe to rival the one Marvel Studios continues to add to. If this movie succeeds at the box office, we may very well see these characters get their own solo adventures to where they might have their own “Avengers” or “Justice League” movie. Still, I don’t think we should expect “Peter vs. Benjamin: Dawn of Radishes” anytime soon. After all, neither has a mother named Margret.

Peter runs afoul again of Mr. McGregor (a completely unrecognizable Sam Neill), but a heart attack suddenly does the old man in, freeing up the rabbit and his friends to have the equivalent to an endless rave party in his home. But then into the picture comes family relative Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson) who moves in after being fired from his job at Harrods in London, and no time is wasted before he and Peter wage war against one another which involves, among other things, repeated electrocution.

Perhaps it was too much to expect the filmmakers to remain true to “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” with had its main character being portrayed as being very naughty and later paying a price for being recklessly disobedient to his elders. This particular Potter tale was a great one for kids as it taught them the value of being good, something which Peter did not value in the slightest. “Peter Rabbit,” however, defies the tale’s morality and shows how this rabbit’s rebellious ways are something to cheer on instead of lay caution to. Also, Peter’s sisters Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail are shown to be willing participants in his rebellious escapades, something they were not previously.

I was also shocked to see how Neill’s Mr. McGregor was portrayed as a bloodthirsty meat eater who showed no hesitation in making a rabbit pie out of those who failed to escape his clutches. This leads “Peter Rabbit” to have a “Watership Down” scene where we learn how one of his parents became a tasty meal for Mr. McGregor, and this reeks of shameless manipulation on the part of the filmmakers. At the very least, this movie is bound to appeal to vegans as much as it will to children.

Then there is Thomas McGregor, and Gleeson portrays him in a way very similar to his role as General Hux in the recent “Star Wars” movies. Thomas is such an obsessive neat freak to where he wants the toilets at Harrods to be so clean he could drink out of them, and he almost does so with a straw. I expect sick humor like this in “The Human Centipede,” not in a family movie. If you want to see Gleeson in something good, check out “About Time” or the underrated “Goodbye Christopher Robin” instead.

James Corden is a wonderful talent, and I always enjoy watching his late-night sketches which include many unforgettable carpool karaoke episodes. But when it comes to roles like voicing Peter Rabbit, he tries way too hard to be funny and hip. This was the same problem with his work in “The Emoji Movie” which, in retrospect, I gave him too much leeway on. His performance in “Peter Rabbit” is definitely spirited, but seeing him trying to be infinitely clever to where he is desperate to stay one step ahead of the audience becomes painful and exhausting as the movie drags on.

Indeed, the filmmakers try way too hard to make “Peter Rabbit” seem so hip and cool to where they include songs like Len’s “Steal My Sunshine,” a great pop song which has now been officially used once too often in movies. Gluck also includes Big Country’s “In a Big Country,” Rancid’s “Time Bomb,” Vampire Weekend’s “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance,” and The Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).” You know, the kind of music Potter listened to endlessly while she wrote. Seeing the animals dancing the latest dance moves here was very dispiriting to me, but at least we never see Flopsy, Mopsy or Cottontail do any twerking.

If there is one real saving grace in “Peter Rabbit,” it is Rose Byrne. As Bea, the McGregor’s next-door neighbor, painter and animal lover, she is so infinitely appealing to where she truly lights up the screen whenever she appears. Byrne gives these proceedings a heart and soul which doesn’t deserve them, and I became infinitely jealous of Peter whenever she picked him up and cuddled him. It’s moments like those which had me wanting to be Peter, but anyway.

The children I saw “Peter Rabbit” with really enjoyed the shenanigans portrayed onscreen, and I am sure many of them will get a kick out of this movie. I, on the other hand, stared at the silver screen feeling dejected as the plot went down a road which filmmakers have traveled thousands of times before. Things get even more ridiculous when Thomas and Peter go from being bitter enemies to much needed allies. Seeing one character attempting to blow up another with dynamite is enough to bring about a restraining order. These two coming together near the end is as ridiculous as the thing which kept a pair of superheroes from beating one another to death in “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.”

“Peter Rabbit” is the first 2018 movie I have watched, and I’m positive many others which have yet to be released will be far better. Parents right now have a chance to take their children to movies which are far more imaginative and thoughtful like “Paddington 2,” but it looks like they will be quicker to get in line for this one instead. Call me a purist, but this is not how a Beatrix Potter tale should be translated to cinema. Of the many rabbits out there, this one is far from being ultimate.

* out of * * * *

 

‘Attack the Block’ Features John Boyega in a Terrific Debut Performance

Attack the Block movie poster

Attack the Block” is a highly entertaining combination of action and sci-fi genres which deals with humans defending themselves against a swarm of unfriendly extra-terrestrials. It follows a street gang of young kids who, in the process of robbing a female nurse, get greeted by an alien who lands with a loud thud on someone’s car (here’s hoping they have auto insurance). It marks the beginning of an attack by an alien race which immediately tears apart anything in its path, and it’s up this gang of delinquents to save the day.

The majority of “Attack the Block” takes place in a council estate, a location which houses the financially challenged of England’s residents, and it is generally overrun by a nasty criminal element. This setting has been used to great effect in “Fish Tank” and “Harry Brown,” movies which effectively showed how isolating it can be to live there. The characters presented feel very true to life, and it makes what could be seen by many as another B-movie far more effective as a result.

Leading this street gang is Moses (John Boyega), a 15-year-old who is older than his age would suggest. Moses and his mates spend their time robbing those walking through the terrace they live in. But when the aliens enter into their territory, they find antagonists that are completely unwilling to give up their valuables (assuming they have any), and the threat they pose to this gang make their struggles in daily life a cakewalk in comparison.

“Attack the Block” was directed by Joe Cornish, an English comedian, television and radio presenter, director, writer and actor. This marks his directorial debut as he has previously helmed several behind the scenes documentaries like “The Fuzzball Rally” featured on the “Hot Fuzz” DVD and Blu-ray. Cornish’s work here is very assured, and he does an excellent job of combining elements of horror and comedy to great effect, something never easy to pull off. He also generates highly suspenseful moments which really get the audience on edge, and they make for a surprisingly unpredictable motion picture.

Of all the performances, the most impressive comes from John Boyega as Moses. This is his film debut, but he looks and acts like he’s been acting for ages as his eyes reveal a battle over how far he will go and of all the bad things he has seen in life. As the fight against the aliens goes on, it offers his character a chance for redemption and to be a hero, and Boyega makes Moses earn those honors long before the film’s conclusion.

Also impressive is Jodie Whittaker as Sam, a hospital nurse faced with an impossible situation where she has to work with the same gang of kids who mugged her in order to survive. Whittaker convincingly takes her character from being a frightened woman to one who holds her own alongside these kids, and she is not your typical horror victim screaming her way throughout the entire movie.

It’s also great to see Nick Frost here as the drug dealer, Ron. Frost brings an ever so dry humor to the proceedings, and all the other actors work off of him to great effect. In each movie he does, Frost is brilliant at sneaking the occasional joke in when you least expect it, and you can always count on him to leaving on the floor laughing.

“Attack the Block” was made for only $13 million, and the visual effects the filmmakers came up with are very impressive considering the budget. Having less money forces directors to be more creative, and Cornish succeeded in making this film look like it cost a lot more. The aliens themselves are minimal in their design, but they feel far more threatening than the ones you might remember from “Cowboys & Aliens.” Their pitch-black fur is highlighted by neon-like eyes and teeth, and their horrendously loud shriek is certain to make audiences jump out of their seats more often than not.

The action is also highlighted by a super cool electronic score by Basement Jaxx which really puts you in the right frame of mind. I definitely recommend buying the soundtrack once you have watched this movie. I myself didn’t even hesitate in purchasing a copy. That’s how much I like this kind of film music.

The summer 2011 movie season was mostly disappointing due to a lack of creativity and inspiration as many of the blockbusters were cynically made by studios with the intention of making money while giving audiences what they thought they wanted. Watching “Attack the Block” though is a great reminder of how much fun it can be to go to the movies, and it was one of the best action movies to come out that year. This is a must see.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Looper’ – From the Director of ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’

Looper movie poster

Rian Johnson’s “Looper” is an ingenious movie which combines the genres of noir, science-fiction and western into a mind twister of a film which will have you enthralled throughout. It reminds you of all those time travels movies you grew up watching, and yet it feels very original when compared to them. It also proves Johnson is a creative filmmaking force to reckon with, and it gives each cast member an opportunity to give their best performance in any film they appeared in during 2012.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Joe Simmons, an assassin in the year 2044 who works for the mafia and kills agents sent back from the year 2072. In this future, time travel is possible and also illegal, and the mob takes advantage of it to get rid of their garbage. The movie’s title refers to the kind of assassin Joe is, a foot soldier who is paid on the condition their targets never escape. They are given a shotgun called a Blunderbuss which doesn’t have much of a range but it is powerful enough to kill a person up close. When “Looper” starts, Joe looks to have been doing this for a while and has been living the good life as a result.

Things, however, change drastically when the mob decides to “close the loop” by sending back the Loopers’ future versions of themselves to eliminate. Joe ends up coming into contact with an older version of himself (played by Bruce Willis), and the old Joe escapes before young Joe can get him in his sights. From there, the young Joe is on the run as he has searches for his older self in order to get the mob off his back and live to see another day, so to speak.

To say more will spoil some of “Looper’s” most inventive moments as it is full of surprises you don’t see coming. The story looks to have been very well thought out, and its focus is more on the characters than anything else. Also, it creates a future which looks futuristic and yet not far removed from our present. Some movies can alienate you with their overreliance on special effects, but “Looper” isn’t out to blow you away visually. Instead, it finds its most potent moments involving the insane situations Levitt and Willis find themselves in.

Seeing Levitt and Willis face off in a diner gives us one of the most riveting scenes in any movie released in 2012. Considering how brutal they are to each other throughout “Looper,” I couldn’t help but think: talk about being hard on yourself!

Time travel as a concept has been done to death in movies, and Johnson is fully aware of how familiar audiences are of the rules surrounding it. I loved how he used this familiarity to his advantage here as it makes “Looper” easier to follow than it might seem at first. Johnson also succeeds in juggling different storylines to great effect as things could have burned out creatively speaking before the end credits came up. You go into “Looper” thinking it’s about time travel, but then it becomes about something else entirely. It is a film which demands to be seen multiple times for you to take in all its meanings.

Levitt had a fantastic year so far in 2012 with terrific performances in “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Premium Rush” and “Lincoln,” but “Looper” was truly the icing on the cake for him. As the young Joe Simmons, he gets one of his meatiest roles ever as an assassin who’s a drug addict (what’s in those eye drops anyway?), but who still has a conscience even after all the damage he has done to himself and others. While the prosthetics on his face, which were used to make him look more Willis, are a bit awkward to take in at first, Levitt gives the role his all and looks thrilled to able to transform himself into a character like this.

So much has been said about Bruce Willis over the years as his role as John McClane from “Die Hard” will forever be burned into our consciousness, but seeing him as old Joe in “Looper” reminds us of what a great actor he can be. His Joe is driven to correct the past so he can save the future he has built up for himself, but it also forces him to do things which leave him morally conflicted. Seeing the pain which crosses Willis’ face makes us root for him somewhat in “Looper” even as his character goes seriously astray with his deadly actions.

Then there’s Emily Blunt who plays hard bitten single mom Sara, and she is an incredibly powerful even when she is not wielding a heavy-duty shotgun. Blunt has been a continually wonderful presence in each movie she’s appeared in, and here she gets to be both bad-ass and very vulnerable. Her scenes with Pierce Gagnon, the 5-year old actor who is amazing as her son Cid, are as emotionally powerful as they are deeply suspenseful.

There are also other terrific performances to be found in “Looper” from actors like Paul Dano who plays the neurotic assassin Seth, and Noah Segan who channels Billy the Kid into his role of a six-shooter carrying killer named Kid Blue. And there’s no forgetting the great Jeff Daniels who brings both danger and humor to his role of mob boss Abe. Some are surprised to see Daniels in this kind of role given how he has been typically cast as nice guys in movies, but keep in mind, this is the same guy who played the most embittered of writers in “The Squid and The Whale.”

It’s a treat for moviegoers that a film as endlessly inventive as “Looper” got produced in a time where creativity was at a cinematic low. Everyone involved in this picture clearly came to it with tremendous enthusiasm, and it shows in every single second which unfolds before us. It is not only one of the best movies of 2012, but also one of the best time travel movies ever made. And watching it again makes me all the more excited for Johnson’s biggest movie yet, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”

* * * * out of * * * *