Since I did not write a full review of A Quiet Place, just noted it as arguably the best movie of 2018 in my year-end review, it is worth spending a little time here to talk about it before getting into Part II. A lot of horror movies are cheap, barely coherent films aimed solely at getting a couple of jumps or screams out of the audience. If they do that, they win. That cheap part is key, just look at The Purge series. Each of the four movies (with a fifth coming out soon) cost between $3-$13 million to make and each pulled in around $100 million at the box office despite the movies featuring almost no actors you have ever heard of and writing that, at best, can be described as words on paper.
(SPOILERS for the first film. If you haven’t seen it yet, go now, and be quick about it.)
A Quiet Place differed in three key aspects. The first is that it featured two well-known actors, Emily Blunt and John Krasinski. The second is that it was a well-written screenplay with an exceptional attention to detail (one of the writers was Krasinski, who also directed). The third is that it had a larger budget, though still inexpensive as movies go, at $17-$21 million. All three of those things as a group were crucial to the success of the film. While a larger budget for a horror flick is a great thing (they were able to hire Industrial Light & Magic for the creatures, rather than hope a couple of kids with MacBooks could do it for a couple thousand dollars and some lollipops), the key was two exceptionally good actors and that meticulously written screenplay.
The acting was notable in that the entire cast was six people, two of whom are barely in the film. Essentially, it was Krasinski and Blunt with a couple of kids (both of whom were also quite good) and a script asking them to deliver a convincing performance with virtually no spoken lines. Since the creatures in the film can hear the smallest of noises, the family has to do everything as silently as possible. This is where the amazing screenplay comes into play. In order to convince the viewer of the danger posed to the family (and all surviving people) and how they were able to survive for so long, we have to see and not hear everything they do. From their sign language, to the trails of sand they walk on in bare feet, to the sound-proofed basement, to the lights used for signaling, to the sheer terror and desperation in the actors’ eyes, face, and bodies whenever so much as a mouse farts, everything in the sets, acting, and production design conveys a singular purpose – shhhhhhh.
The entire film is done so exquisitely that the audience unconsciously becomes part of the film, not daring to make a sound lest we become the next victim or betray the family’s position. When Lee (Krasinski) hears that toy space shuttle break the silence in the opening scene, the terror in his eyes is palpable and we clench in anticipation of what he is so afraid of. While most horror flicks hope for a couple of scenes of great tension, A Quiet Place succeeded in creating an entire film of great tension. It isn’t until the film is over that you realize your fingers are two knuckles deep into the armrests.
A Quiet Place is also the kind of movie that makes you dread a sequel. For one thing, you are worried that you cannot handle that level of tension for another two solid hours. For another thing, trying to recapture the magic of a movie like this is almost always a fool’s errand. This time, the audience knows what is out there. This time, the audience knows the family has a way to fight back against the monsters. And when it comes to monster movies, sequels almost always try to double-down on the monsters. Super-hearing in the first film? How about we give them the power of flight in the second film? Also, they are twice as big. Oh, and they can breathe under water. If not this movie, then they can when this becomes a trilogy.
This is where a great talent like John Krasinski comes in handy. For the sequel, he is the sole credited writer, directs again, and is even in a prologue scene depicting the first day the creatures attack. While this first scene is a fun nod to the audience who all wanted to know where the creatures came from, the rest of the movie is shown the same amount of care and meticulousness as the first film. And if you were worried about the sequel curse, Part II isn’t a traditional sequel that happens sometime in the future, often with different characters. Once that prologue scene is over, the film cuts to where we left Evelyn (Blunt) and her kids at the end of the first film. And I do mean the exact moment we left Evelyn, standing there with a shotgun.
With Lee gone, Evelyn and her three kids (including their newborn infant) set off to find a new place to survive. They soon come across an abandoned factory and have to run for their lives when Evelyn trips a tripwire and Marcus steps in a bear trap. Quickly, daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) sets up their one defense against the creatures (a speaker and her hearing aid, which make a screeching noise). Watching this occur from within the factory is Emmett (Cillian Murphy), a friend of the family, and fellow survivor who lost his family to the creatures. Seeing them kill one of the creatures, Emmett dashes out to help them and we are treated to another harrowing scene in which the humans use a combination of luck and environment to survive the attack. And like with the entire first movie, your hands are knuckle-deep in your seat.
While recovering from the bear trap, Marcus comes across a radio station playing music on a radio in Emmett’s hideout. Regan concludes that the music is a message to survivors and decides that she is going to locate the source of the music, taking off on her own without Evelyn’s or Emmett’s knowledge. The rest of the film plays out this plot and continues on like the previous film and this film – very little spoken dialogue and an intensity that rarely dips below nine. Emmett goes after Regan and they must survive multiple encounters. Evelyn and Marcus must survive more encounters. A couple of new human characters are discovered and more encounters must be survived. And every bit of it as intense as the last film and none of it feels rote or less urgent.
Have I mentioned that this film was really good? It was really good. It is one of the few sequels that manages to be as good as its predecessor and shows that sequels don’t have to escalate from the first film to be good. It also helps that Part II got a massive boost in production funds ($61 million), kept its cast small, and featured two very good actors carrying the film. It is the perfect film to usher us back into theaters, especially since the audience unconsciously stays as quiet as possible. Because you never know what might hear you.
Rating: Do not ask for any money back and apologize for poking holes in the seats.
For years, Disney has been trying to recapture the magic of beloved classics, either by remaking them or attempting to reimagine them, and mostly failing. Alice in Wonderland, Dumbo, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Maleficent, and more. I get that people have enjoyed some of them, especially The Jungle Book, which completely ruined the ending of the story, but it’s only been successful in that they have made a ton of movies, not that people have truly loved the films. Don’t believe me? Sing the new song they added to the Beauty and the Beast remake. Nope, that’s from the original. So is that. Now you’re just embarrassing yourself.
When I learned that Cruella de Vil was getting her own live-action origin story film, my brain immediately went to Maleficent, a decidedly bad attempt at a villain origin story that tried to make someone whose name literally means evil into a misunderstood princess. Gross. The good news is Disney finally managed to get a live-action villain origin story right in Cruella.
(Mild SPOILERS ahead to talk about how Disney almost kept their losing streak alive.)
The movie definitely starts off on the wrong foot, with the same cliches as every other Disney film. Zero points if you guessed that it starts with a little girl named Estella…whose mom dies. Seriously, what is wrong with Disney? It’s supposed to be THE family-friendly company and they can’t get ten minutes into a film without killing off a parent or two. And to top it off, this initial chain of events sure stunk like Disney trying to turn another villain into a misunderstood princess. A villain whose alter ego not only means evil, but literally contains the words cruel and evil. Remember, the original Cruella wanted to murder ninety-nine puppies to make a coat. I promise – nobody wants to see Princess Estella.
And the way they kill Cruella’s mom off was a terrible scene…at first. The way the scene initially plays out is so unbelievable it almost made me turn off the film. My wife and I looked at each other like we had microwaved fish. The scene felt like Disney was so aware of its reputation for patri/matri-cide that it was trolling us. But, I am nothing if not a glutton for movie punishment, so I pressed on, fully expecting the film to devolve into a nostalgia-filled train wreck. And I am glad I did because I have never been so glad to be so wrong about a film.
The first act ends with young, now-orphaned Estella meeting a couple of London street urchins named Jasper and Horace. We jump ahead ten years thanks to a montage of their pickpockets and thefts, and the second act begins with Estella (Emma Stone) complaining that she is somewhat bored with their current lifestyle. Sensing this, Jasper gives her a birthday present – an employment acceptance letter at a high-end fashion store called Liberty that Estella has been obsessed with for years. You see, Estella fancies herself a fashion genius and just wants a chance to prove herself. All she has to do now that she has the job is prove her worth. The job is janitor, but that’s just a minor detail. After finally hitting the end of her toilet-scrubbing, floor-cleaning, garbage-dumping rope, she goes full Mannequin on a window display and the movie finally starts.
At the same time Estella’s display is discovered, in strolls the owner of Liberty, one Miranda Priestly. Whoopsie, I mean Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson). Much of the rest of the story plays out in such a way that it’s clear which movie the writers had just watched, but they do a good job of threading the needle between homage, plagiarism, and Prada.
The Baroness is what Miranda Priestly would have become if Miranda lacked a conscience. Yeah, the Baroness is that nasty. And Thompson owns the Baroness the way Meryl Streep owned Miranda. The Baroness is a delightful mix of cunning, viciousness, and heartlessness wrapped in a ball of wry humor of which only a few actors are capable. And Emma Thompson is one of them. It’s what made Hela and Loki so delightful and what Maleficent so clearly lacked. That mix of characteristics is what brings Cruella to full fruition and also what pushes Emma Stone to make Cruella just as memorable as the Baroness.
Having a great actor like Thompson around always pushes the rest of the cast to be better, but having Stone there too is like a rookie ball player filling in on an All-Star team. The two play off each other so well, each trying to out-villain the other. I particularly enjoyed the way Stone balanced what was almost two roles – Estella, who was just trying to make her mom proud, and Cruella, who was trying to burn the Baroness to the ground. With those two tossing a gem, the rest of the cast had no choice but to raise their game, so much so that Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) almost managed to steal the show. Almost.
This Jasper and Horace were much better than their original, animated predecessors. Instead of clumsy, dopey oafs, they were three-dimensional characters that provided heart to balance out the villainy. And let’s not forget the Baroness’ valet, John, played by Mark Strong. I mean, is Mark Strong ever not good? Even as a secondary character in this film, Strong commands your attention when he is on screen. He’s just so very Mark Strong.
As for the rest of the production, there is plenty to praise beyond the acting and story. The costumes and makeup were exceptionally good, at times really capturing the essence of 1970’s London. The same can be said for the music, which was as perfectly chosen as in Guardians of the Galaxy. As for the story itself, I was very surprised when the film revisited Cruella’s mom’s death scene to explain why it initially came off as so unbelievable. Just like I was surprised the film didn’t pile on a bunch of forced call-backs to 101 Dalmatians for cheap nostalgia. Not that there aren’t call-backs, but they are subtle and clever. All of which is to say, I finally walked out of a Disney live-action retread without a foul taste in my mouth. Thank you, Emma. Thank you, Emma.Rating: The first movie of the pandemic era in which I can say don’t ask for any money back, but you should still wear a mask when you go to the theater.
While we continue to wait for theaters to reopen with movies we actually want to pay for, streaming services are still pumping out plenty of content for us to chew on. Three weeks ago, Without Remorse dropped on Amazon Prime and I finally found some time to sneak it in. And I was looking forward to it. Amazon’s Jack Ryan series has been solid, and Tom Clancy movies are typically fun, twisty, intrigue-filled, action thrillers worth watching at least once. Unfortunately, Without Remorse has a disadvantage the other Clancy films lacked – no Jack Ryan. As hurdles go, Without Remorse ran face first into it.
(Very mild SPOILER ALERT – If we had to actually pay for this, I’d really be spoiling this clunker.)
The film starts out in typical soldier movie fashion with Kelly leading a team tasked with rescuing a hostage in Aleppo, Syria, as part of a joint CIA operation. Our new Tom Clancy lead is Navy SEAL Senior Chief John Kelly (Michael B. Jordan), who has all the charisma of a kitchen sink. During the mission briefing, Kelly says “Wow. That was a good talk.” CIA agent Robert Ritter (Jamie Bell) responds with “You a comedian? Is that it?” Another SEAL responds with another dud of a retort and we’ve just witnessed a bunch of actors proving why they were cast in a dead-serious action flick and not a comedy. Especially Jordan, but we’ll come back to that later.
During the mission, Kelly discovers that the soldiers holding the hostage are not Syrian, but Russian, and this is supposed to be some big revelation. It was an open secret that both the United States and Russia had troops on the ground in Syria. So, why doesn’t Ritter just tell them? It’s not like the Navy SEALS are under the impression that Russia is just there for the nightlife. Because CIA. If Ritter told them he’d have to kill them. Right, Hollywood?
Fast forward three months and our SEALS are enjoying not being on a mission. Suddenly, Russian assassins are everywhere, killing the SEALS in revenge. Kelly manages to survive several gunshot wounds, but his pregnant wife Pam (Lauren London) is gunned down in her sleep before Kelly is able to kill all but one of the assassins in his home. After recovering, Kelly’s only goal left in life is to hunt down the escaped assassin to avenge his family’s death. Unlike Wrath of Man and John Wick, this movie isn’t putting the viewer into a fantastical mob or hitman landscape that at least have inklings of creativity to keep the viewer engaged. Kelly is just a blunt instrument sent on his way by his commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith) who has the gall to be upset that Kelly goes on a murder spree and ends up having to get him out of prison. If this were a stupid 80’s action flick (and let’s be honest, it is), Greer definitely checks the box for this movie having a stupid chief.
Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Thomas Clay (Guy Pearce) wants to send Russia a message that killing American soldiers on American soil is a no-no. During Kelly’s murder spree, Kelly acquired the name of the escaped assassin and Clay greenlights a mission to track down the assassin and kill him. To recap the plot of this movie so far, it’s: hostage rescue and dead Russians, revenge, revenge, revenge. This is followed by a reveal that makes zero sense, followed by the final reveal that makes the first reveal somehow even more nonsensical (plus, the motivation explaining it is mind-numbingly banal), followed by more revenge. It wouldn’t be so bad if it at least featured amazing choreography or wasn’t dripping in wildly outdated political Cold War intrigue.
Speaking of which, I am not seeing what other people see in Jordan. I was not impressed with his performances in Creed or Black Panther (or Fahrenheit 451, for that matter) and his performance as Kelly did nothing to change my mind. Not that the script did him any favors. There is an attempt to make him seem like a thinker early in the film. Once when he discovers the Russian soldiers by looking at the cell phone of one of the dead soldiers and later when he is walking by his kids playing chess and stops to make a move for one of the kids. Oh, and since I have the power to pause this movie, I rewatched the move he made and it wasn’t even legal! He moved a bishop like it was a knight. Not only is he the asshole who butted into a game of chess (which would get said person stabbed with a pawn), but he doesn’t even know how to play chess. No wonder the idiot’s revenge plan included ramming a car in the departures area of Dulles, then setting the car on fire, all while dozens of people watched (and in real life, would have captured the video of on their phones).
Despite all that, this film might have been tolerable had Jordan shown the slightest amount of interest in his character. Jordan’s Kelly is a flat, boring character with whom you sympathize only by default, due to his dead wife. The only point in the movie where his character comes to life is when he fights off a bunch of prison guards in his cell. And don’t think I’m letting the rest of the cast off the hook. Turner-Smith somehow manages negative charisma, Pearce seems just as confused by the plot and his lines as the audience is, and Bell is clearly trying to convince us that Ritter is not trustworthy purely because CIA. Turns out London was the only winner since all she had to do was die in her sleep as pregnant Pam. And I do mean only winner because running into that hurdle hurts.
Rating: You didn’t pay for this movie and you should still ask for eight dollars back.
One of the things I enjoy the most about writing movie reviews is learning new things. For instance, did you know Guy Ritchie was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award (Razzie) for worst director? And if you were guessing for which movie, it was not for King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, but some random movie called Swept Away starring his then-wife Madonna? Yeah, that Madonna. See? It’s fun learning new things. I also learned that Ritchie’s latest film, Wrath of Man, is a step down from his previous film, The Gentlemen.
(SPOILER ALERT, but if you watch the film, you’ll have it figured out well before the halfway point.)
Wrath of Man continues Ritchie’s streak of movies featuring nobody you should be rooting for. Bad guys vs. really bad guys, where the bad guys are sophisticated and well-spoken and the really bad guys stuck their noses into the business of the bad guys and also don’t dress well. Wrath of Man opens with an armored car robbery, shot from a very interesting perspective. For much of the scene, we cannot see the driver of the armored car, but we can hear him talking to his partner, who we can see, in the passenger seat. This immediately grabbed my attention, seeming to be a setup for a reveal later in the film. Who is the driver? When are we going to hear his voice again? Is he going to part…oh, there he is; nevermind. Guess he probably isn’t important. This will become the recurring theme of this film – disappointment.
The Ritchie movies I enjoy are the ones that are clever. Sherlock Holmes, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Gentlemen. I do not enjoy the ones where Ritchie thinks he is being clever, but is wrong. Wrath of Man is basically John Wick, but if the killer had a believable reason for a murder spree, not a stolen car and strange puppy. Patrick Hill (Jason Statham) is hired as a new guard at an armored truck company. A few days into the job, his partner is taken hostage and the thieves demand the money in truck. Hill goes half Wick on the thieves, killing each with a single headshot, but without all the fancy choreography. In the debriefing with the chief (Eddie Marsan), a couple of lawyers question why Hill is so awesome, and Hill mumbles some of that famous Statham cockney that requires the viewer to turn on closed-captioning. Then, we see Andy Garcia on the phone with the two lawyers, also mumbling some famous Garcia, um, cockney? Whatever it is, he’s nearly as unintelligible as Statham and I quickly forgot that those men existed.
At this point, Ritchie tries to get clever, but fails. The film jumps ahead three months to the next attempted robbery, this time foiled by Hill defying tear gas and scaring off the bandits with a look. I am not making that up – he takes the cloth off his face he was using to thwart the gas and the thieves hightail it out of there. Then, the film jumps backward five months to show us why Hill joined the armored car company, giving us a different perspective of the robbery that opened the film. Unfortunately, it further cemented the fact that the driver was not an important person with a cool back story, just the catalyst for Hill’s revenge.
Once all of the players are revealed, we still have forty-five minutes left of foregone conclusion. Namely, the completion of Hill’s revenge. You’ll be disappointed in how that conclusion plays out, straining your suspension of disbelief to the point where your eyebrow almost flies off your forehead. Even more disappointing is the lack of quick wit that usually fills out Ritchie screenplays. In its place is a bunch of stilted dialogue and cringe-worthy homophobic jokes that would have been out of place even in an 80’s action flick. One character’s name is literally Boy Sweat. I rest my case.
Wrath of Man is nowhere near Razzie level, but it is a decidedly mediocre movie. If you are looking for a heist movie with a whole lot of shooting and killing, it fits the bill. An hour later, you will have a tough time remembering all but one character’s name and who you were supposed to be rooting for. Normally, it’s the guys with the great lines, but this time it’s the guy who kills and has nothing clever to say after. A lot like Ritchie this time around.Rating: Ask for six dollars back and hope Ritchie’s next film is more Sherlock Holmes and less this.
I’m struggling, friends. On one hand, I asked for big, dumb blockbusters to come back. On the other hand, not like this. You don’t need me to tell you that Mortal Kombat is a shit movie catering to the dumbest common denominator. That was a given; it’s right there in the title. Combat is spelled with a C. Spelling it with a K is a 60 point I.Q. reduction.
And for the record, my generation is the target audience. I was thirteen years old when the original game hit arcades and it was awesome for one reason – all the blood. Finish him! Rip his spine out! Look at the fountain of blood spew from his neck! Give me another quarter! That’s not a movie, that’s an adolescent who hasn’t found his dad’s Playboys yet.
Therein lies the fatal flaw in remaking this movie in 2021. The original movie was successful back in 1995 because we were still just sixteen years old, games still hadn’t embraced the blood and gore like Mortal Kombat, and skinny kids playing video games weren’t exactly fighting off all the ladies. Now, we’re in our early forties, blood and gore in video games stopped being impressive two decades ago, and we have families now, so you know we finally put down the joystick, if you know what I mean.
Don’t get me wrong, this movie has plenty of other flaws. Once you get past the discussion of “who is this even for?” you get to the discussion of how nearly every movie adapted from a video game has been hot garbage. And nowhere is that more true than for games that are nothing more than one-on-one fights. Yes, that original game had what can technically be referred to as a plot, but, no it really didn’t. The movie takes that plot and gives it all the fleshing it out it rightly deserves, which is to say none whatsoever.
There is a tournament that many of the humans don’t know exists, but they are a part of, and they have to fight against monsters from another realm in order to prevent a wizard from taking over Earth. Is that a bad thing? Don’t know. Why are certain people chosen? Random reasons. Are there other realms? Maybe in the next movie. Are any of the characters developed beyond their single magical power that is featured in the video game? LOL.
Once you get past the, ahem, plot, you notice that the movie is just a series of lurches between surprisingly dull fight scenes and really, really bad acting. The original movie at least crammed itself into a tournament format and didn’t take itself seriously. It knew it was a based on a video game and leaned into that. This new version thinks it is a real boy. The opening scene features a family in rustic, 17th century Japan getting murdered by an evil ninja with ice powers (Sub-Zero), with just an infant surviving in hiding. Four hundred years later, we meet Cole Young, descendant of the family and MMA whipping boy. He is just trying to eke out a living and support his wife and daughter when Sub-Zero comes back to finish the job. Next thing we know, there are fighters everywhere, a training montage, words about prophecies and tournaments, and poorly filmed and choreographed fight scenes featuring absurd finishing moves that somehow manage to not know they are absurd. You had one job, movie.
Considering we just got Godzilla vs. Kong, the awfulness of Mortal Kombat stands out even more. Godzilla vs. Kong knows exactly what it is and delivers – giant lizard punches giant ape. It too has some really stupid story trying to rationalize why they are fighting, but the fights themselves are excellent to watch and make you forget the things said five minutes earlier. Mortal Kombat’s fights are like watching a puppy die, but if the puppy’s head is cut off and bowels ripped out. And just to add insult to injury, the special effects during the fight scenes are terrible. Seriously movie, you had one job.
Like I said, I asked for this. Not specifically this – I still have standards. Just because new movies are being released in a slow trickle doesn’t mean I still won’t skewer sewage posing as film. The good news is Mortal Kombat is another HBO Max movie, so rather than waste two hours watching the film, you’re better off picking up your joystick. If you know what I mean.
Rating: Ask for all of your money back and kiss your family, especially if you made them sit through the movie with you.