Happy Death Day: Movie Man Jackson

Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. It is birthday time for “Tree” (Jessica Rothe), a college student and sorority girl who pretty much epitomizes the worst of those stereotypes. She’s awaken from a drunken night in the bed of Carter (Israel Broussard), an old classmate. So college.

Her birthday takes her through the basic minutiae of any other day: Walks across campus, house meetings with her equally witchy sorority members, and a visit to see her professor for after-hours study. Being her birthday, it culminates with her going out to celebrate…only she doesn’t make it because she’s slain by a masked buck-toothed, baby-faced assailant.

But the next day, Tree wakes up—in the same bed of Carter’s—to the same alarm. The cycle repeats itself, with Tree dying again and again and again to the same assailant. To get to tomorrow, she’s got to solve the mystery as to why someone wants to kill her and possibly reexamine herself while doing so.

Starting like every other piece that will be posted, you can’t watch Happy Death Day without thinking about Groundhog Day. The time loop narrative is well-worn at this point, but at the same time, it is a narrative that honestly always seems to have some juice. Throw in a murder mystery with repeating the same day over and over, and Happy Death Day makes for a perfectly enjoyable movie that doesn’t care to ascend to lofty heights but rather content to be a fun, in-the-moment diversion of time.

Blumhouse Productions, the predominantly horror movie studio which sometimes whiffs and other times knocks grand slams with its horror movies (but always does so on a budget designed to maximize profit) is the home of Happy Death Day. Fright-wise, their latest installment pales in comparison to their own recent productions such as Get Out and Split. Happy Death Day itself is only a horror for, say, the first 30 minutes of runtime. While there are some extremely basic yet passably effective jump scares set up by director Christopher Landon (Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse), Happy Death Day evolves more into a mystery/thriller and even comedy the longer it goes on.

It’s actually not as bad as it sounds. Horror-wise the PG-13 rating, in this case, does sanitize any substantial scares that could have been present (the trailer did no favors, either). On the mystery front, however, Landon and writer Scott Lobdell do present enough characters with legitimate motivations to offing Tree to keep the audience guessing until the actual reveal. The reveal itself, even for a film that is as self-aware as this, is a little underwhelming and even disappointing. But as it is often said, the journey is better than the destination. A caveat, though: Like Groundhog Day, do not expect any proper explanation as to why this day repeats.

Like that film, the day existed to serve as a redemption of sorts for its lead character. The same approach follows here. Despite the short runtime, writer and director do a good job in delving into Tree’s backstory and allowing her to grow organically in the midst of a bizarre scenario. This allows lead actress Jessica Rothe to showcase her burgeoning talent. Rothe does a lot, transforming from insufferable to comedic to emotional and bringing the audience in and along each moment of the way. She pairs nicely with the likable Israel Broussard; their friendship creating an unforeseen emotional aspect that keeps Happy Death Day enough on the straight and narrow path and providing Tree a reason worth living for. As for the rest of the cast, most fall into sometimes entertaining but mostly par-for-the-course side characters who slide in and out as the pieces in Tree’s day of death are altered.

 

In a specific subgenre in which every movie always gets compared to the Bill Murray original classic, Happy Death Day doesn’t reinvent the loop. But, it does add a fun wrinkle or two within it.

B-

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Blade Runner 2049: Movie Man Jackson

Things were simpler in 2019. In 2049, Los Angeles is even more of a dystopia than before. Once under the all-watching eye of the Tyrell Corporation, scientist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) has bought the company and put money towards new NEXUS replicants. The NEXUS-9’s are more obedient, and phase out the NEXUS-8’s. The few remaining 8’s are hunted once again by the Blade Runners; one known as “K” (Ryan Gosling) is quite adept at his job.

On a mission not out of the ordinary, K literally unearths a revelation that has wide-reaching ramifications for each party on alternates sides of a teetering proverbial “wall.” K’s investigation leads him to the legendary Blade Runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who may possess the clues to piecing together this mystery.

Ahh…Blade Runner. The aftermath of that movie released in 1982 is arguably more noteworthy than the actual movie itself, which is in no way a slight to Ridley Scott’s original. But, the aftermath and the second, third, and fourth lives of Blade Runner are why Blade Runner 2049 exists today. A 35 year release gap between productions would seem to be problematic, but not when there’s there’s this high level of talent assembled and involved. Blade Runner 2049 is an extremely impressive piece of work that mostly lives up to its substantial hype.

The pressure and expectations of delving deeper into the dystopian setting of 2019 LA thirty years later would crush many a working director in Hollywood. But Denis Villeneuve isn’t an average director. He’s a dynamic director, one of the best—if not the best—working today. Great sci-fi features depend a lot on visual storytelling, perhaps more so than any other genre. It’s impossible not to be sucked into the extravagant world of Blade Runner 2049 and not believe it doesn’t exist, or rather, won’t exist.

Clearly being inspired by Scott’s vision, Villeneuve keeps that neo-noir style but improves upon it in lighting, ambiance, CGI, and all of the above.The dynamic duo he forms with cinematographer Roger Deakins makes for the best looking film of 2017, bar none. Oh, and the composer collaboration of Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch makes for a great atmospheric accompaniment to everything on-screen.

And then there’s the story. Co-written by Blade Runner‘s original writer Hampton Fancher and Michael Green (Alien: Covenant, Logan), the focus remains on what it means to be human. Is “feeling” still feeling if those feelings are technically artificial? The specific theme that ties into those bigger ones is purpose.To not spoil anything (hopefully), I’ll just say that the film answers this question through the fascinating main character arc. At two hours and forty-three minutes, Blade Runner 2049 tackles a lot and deals with the volume pretty efficiently with a slow burn pace.

However, Villeneuve and company do unfortunately leave a few characters and intriguing narrative threads with little to no resolution, especially in the final act. Chalk it up to an unclear direction—not in the literal sense, but a figurative one. There’s enough here to suggest that Blade Runner 2049 could spawn at least another installment, maybe more (a lower than projected opening box office weekend may put an end to that, though). But at the same time, one gets the feeling that there were multiple people working on this that would like this to close the book on Phillip K. Dick’s story for good. As such, Blade Runner 2049 ends well enough but without that complete level of satisfaction.

What is undeniably satisfying is the cast, starting with lead Ryan Gosling. His character of K is compelling, and seeing how Gosling reacts as the story unfolds around and within him is spectacular. He’s flanked by a rising Ana de Armas, a consistent Robin Wright, and an opening scene-stealing Dave Bautista. The build to Harrison Ford is worth it, the veteran chewing up real estate once he appears. All make for great characters; the only ones who feel a little underwritten on first watch appear to be Jared Leto’s and Sylvia Hoeks. No fault of their own, both deliver great performances; but their motivations seem a little hazy. Still, this cast is spectacular, night and day better than the thespian work in Ridley’s original.

More standalone film than pure sequel, Blade Runner 2049 does nothing to dull the memories of 1982. But it takes those memories as inspiration and makes something that can stand alone well enough, leaving one of the 2010’s best science-fiction films behind.

A-

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American Made: Movie Man Jackson

Stuff is only illegal if you get caught doing it. Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) makes his living as a TWA pilot in the late 1970’s, raising a family along with wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright) in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Always something of a free spirit, Barry’s one of the best in the world but deep down desires more.

Enter Monty Schaefer (Domhnall Gleason), a CIA agent who offers Seal the opportunity to fill that wild spirit void—and to make solid coin—by taking airborne pictures of Central America for reconnaissance purposes. It doesn’t take long for Seal to attract the attention of the locals, particularly the powerful Medellin Cartel and Pablo Escobar (Mauicio Mejia), who quickly approach Seal and ask him to smuggle their product into the U.S. With the CIA looking the other way, Barry is allowed to live large while increasingly taking on more improbable and dangerous missions.

There’s always those few movies that come out around the fall movie season that feel more like light summer fare. Director Doug Liman’s (Edge of Tomorrow, The Bourne Identity) latest in American Made is one of those movies. Despite the traditionally dark and gritty treatment the subject matter often generates in cinema, Liman and star Tom Cruise go the other way, opting for a telling that is breezier and fun—if empty.

Honestly, the term “movie” barely fits American Made. That’s not a complete negative or indictment as some of it is intentional. Liman goes for a documentary-esque approach in even the most elementary of scenes, and the narrative framing relies on voiceover from Cruise done through grainy videotape to spur the on-screen events forward and add the occasional necessary exposition. It works solidly enough, the ol’ “style over substance” approach.

Emphasis on style. Because, American Made has little in the way of meat to chew on. Even compared to similar-minded, relatively light films based on unbelievable and/or embellished real-life individuals in War Dogs and The Wolf of Wall Street, American Made kind of makes those films look like thought-provoking works. Perhaps it’s due to the telling of the story, which comes off as a series of increasingly insane events stitched and put together rather than real story cohesion. No real pronounced act structure exists; the time frame of the events will often jump years ahead without warning. Maybe it’s just representative of it’s whimsical main character, a dude living for the thrills without thought given to anything else.

Sometimes being a mega-star is a bad thing that renders a viewing audience unable to distinguish the star from the part they’re playing. This is one of the reasons The Mummy 2017, starring mega-star Tom Cruise, failed. Whereas some roles and films benefit from a lesser name, others depend on it.

Resembling in no way, shape, or form Barry Seal, it doesn’t matter much because Tom Cruise gets across Doug Liman’s vision of him. It’s hard to see many deliver the charisma, swagger, and “don’t go away because you might miss something outrageous” feeling Tom does here. Seal’s a guy with questionable morals at best, yet hard to despise significantly. Obviously, he’s not the only performer that appears in American Made; Domhnall Gleason and Sarah Wright are perfectly fine, but they’re definitively overshadowed by Cruise. Love or hate him, the man still has the undeniable “it” factor.

Firmly in the group of biopics made to entertain first and educate second (if at all), American Made is a middling romp, but a romp raised in quality by Cruise.

C+

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American Assassin: Movie Man Jackson

Loss can drive a person to low depths…or amazing heights, depending on the point of view. Twenty-three-year-old Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) has experienced a lot of it during his years, losing his parents in an accident at fourteen, and his fiancée literally minutes after proposing at the hands of a terrorist attack. This drives Mitch to seek undercover revenge on not just the terrorists who killed his woman, but all sleeper cells.

Being a terrorist vigilante attracts the attention of the CIA and its director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan). Most in the organization don’t trust Mitch’s psyche, but Irene believes he can do much good with some reigning in, so she ships him off to learn under the tutelage of Cold War vet Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). They need someone who can handle himself as a plan to build a nuclear weapon capable of starting and ending a war begins to manifest. It leads them to “Ghost” (Taylor Kitsch), an individual who has deep history with high ranking members of the CIA.

American Assassin has a title befitting of a movie made in the 1990’s. Visualize it with an older cast. Steven Seagal starring as the guy taking on some of the worst the world has to offer. Jill Hennessy as the CIA director. Ted Levine as the recruit gone rogue. American Assassin is essentially a 1990’s action movie, but devoid of the adrenaline and overall fun factor some of those films carried.

Adapted from a Vince Flynn book in the Mitch Rapp series, American Assassin starts off solidly enough, with director Michael Cuesta (Kill the Messenger) staging the uncomfortable opening and building enough sympathy for the lead character. Problem is, after this, little to no additional depths are explored towards the lead or any of the characters for that matter. This wouldn’t have been much of a gripe if American Assassin went all in on being bombastic from the get-go, but the approach taken is rather grounded and certainly heavy for a spy movie at least early on, harboring potential for deeper characterization and themes. There’s nothing wrong with that (I kind of prefer it, personally in a world of Bonds and Kingsmen which are fun in their own right), just commit to it.

Perhaps it’s the story of the novel which doesn’t translate greatly to the silver screen. At some undetermined point in the runtime, the approach goes from mature/semi-realistic to lowest common denominator/over-the-top. Sure, there are some solid (if unspectacular) action sequences that don’t shy away from brutality and blood, but they’re barely tied together by a dull story and boring dialogue that shoots blanks in attempting to suck the viewer in.

What’s more disappointing is that there’s no reveal or intriguing twist that jolts life into the proceedings, what’s there is there. By the final act, Cuesta and company seem to know this, throwing every cliché in the genre at the wall in an attempt to leave American Assassin on a fun note. All that’s left behind is some poor CGI.

The cast tasked with raising this story from the book pages to the big screen don’t really get the opportunity to elevate anything. Most characters are inconsequential, or so stock and generic, be it the deputy director played by Latham (seemingly only existing for exposition) or the villain played with Kitsch who has an issue with a person from his past. On a brighter note, at least Dylan O’Brien looks recovered from his Maze Runner accident. He’s a guy who’s got talent and a little charisma, but like a game manager, he can only be great if the elements around him are stable. And of course there’s Michael Keaton. While this is the bottom of the barrel in regards to his recent films of late, his presence and veteran guile alone can make up for a few film deficiencies.

American Assassin ends with the possibility of going on more missions with the uber-skilled Mitch Rapp. But if one is any indicator of what the future holds with these movies, Mr. Rapp’s first foray into counter-terrorism should be his last.

C-

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Kidnap: Movie Man Jackson

Mad Max: Fury Road with a SUV and without the fury. Waitress and divorcee Karla Dyson (Halle Berry) gets some much-needed time to spend with her six-year old son, Frankie (Sage Correa) at the county fair. It’s time away from the mundane job she works, and it allows her to take her mind away from the impending custody battle with her ex-husband.

While taking a call concerning the custody, Frankie vanishes. Panicking, Karla manages to spot her youngster being forcibly kidnapped and placed into a car. What follows is a long, long pursuit across the freeway, countryside, and everywhere in between. Karla does not know why Frankie was targeted, but one thing is certain: She’s not stopping until she gets her son back.

A title can say it all. In the vein of similarly basic-named movies like Taken, Hot Tub Time Machine, and Snakes on a Plane is Kidnap. There’s something a little cool about hearing a movie’s title and knowing exactly what it will consist of. There’s also a level-set aspect after hearing such obvious, generic titles. As a result, it’s hard to be truly disappointed with the final quality of said movie. Kidnap is said movie—nothing exceptional, kind of awkward—but watchable.

A person can go into Kidnap blind (as I did, never viewing the trailer) and know rather quickly how the events will play out. It plays like a poorer man’s version of Breakdown, released roughly 20 years earlier. However, writer Knate Lee and director Luis Prieto do buck convention, just a little. Instead of a “whodunit,” that aspect is immediately removed about 10-15 minutes in. What we’re treated to is a prolonged car chase that manages to grab attention, despite having some choppy, fragmented cinematography, as well as an odd fixation on how fast Berry’s traveling on the speedometer. The climax, as common as it is, carries a moderate level of tension. Overall, Prieto’s direction is perfectly competent with flashes of impressiveness, and some over-direction.

Around 87 minutes, Kidnap is too short to ponder its existence. But that doesn’t mean that those minutes are expertly paced. For a movie this short, quite a few shots and moments feel needlessly put in or drawn out. Take for example, the aforementioned early call that Karla takes concerning the custody of her child. Being introduced when it is, this would surely play into the plot at some point, right? No, this proverbial Checkhov Gun detail never goes off and is completely inconsequential to the story, as it could be told without knowing Karla is a divorcee in a custody battle. While it isn’t a bad thing, the plot never evolves from bad guys doing a bad act because they’re bad. The common clichés found in an average thriller/horror (dead phone, car breaks down, incompetent police, etc.) are present here.

Being the only star of the movie, all the responsibility unsurprisingly falls onto Halle to do her best to elevate it. She’s not given the best stuff to play with; there are some brutally bad monologues during the car chase that are a pain to watch and hear her say. Her distressed faces can border on being over-the-top. Still, Berry’s a professional, and more than not she plays her part well in being a scared yet resilient parent during chaos. No one else really makes an impression, as they all just fall into forgettable roles.

There’s worse out there than Kidnap, certainly. However, likely to vanish from sight, mind, and theaters quickly, an eye won’t be batted and nothing of value will be lost.

C-

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Atomic Blonde: Movie Man Jackson

How…does it..feel? Cold. As in the Cold War, the year being 1989. In Berlin, the war is winding down, but political unrest is winding up. After a high-ranking secret agent is killed in the streets, the MI6 sends in their best, agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron). Her mission is to track down Bakhtin (Jóhannes Jóhannesson), who not only killed agent Gasciogne (Sam Hargrave), but is in possession of a list that is trouble for everyone who doesn’t have it.

To retrieve it, she’s paired with station agent chief David Percival (James McAvoy). The two must traverse the shady, seedy city of Berlin to prevent major worldly damage from occurring. But in the world of espionage, no one can ever truly be trusted, and everyone knows more than they’re letting on.

There are some movies that earn their keep almost entirely on one scene. In Atomic Blonde, that one scene is an amazing stairwell fight scene that rivals some of the best American action movie scenes in recent memory, namely, John Wick’s red circle club shootout, that movie being co-directed by David Leitch. He’s on his own here, and in this one scene, it’s tightly constructed, highly unpredictable, and impeccably choreographed. Honestly, it along with the production is probably worth the price of admission alone. That doesn’t absolve the rest of the movie from its mild-at-best storytelling and script. But Atomic Blonde brings enough hot aspects to offset them ever so slightly.

Atomic Blonde is bathed in style from the get-go, employing a cool and neon-hued color palette that makes the locale of Berlin and that of its many hotspots pop off the screen. Based on a graphic novel known as The Coldest City, Leitch seems to draw inspiration from that medium in the way some scenes are shot and presented. In addition to the technical achievements, this film features a moody, industrial score by composer Tyler Bates (yet again, another John Wick connection) and an easy-listening, new-wave/synth pop soundtrack. He even manages to craft a central theme that will surely be used in any subsequent sequels.

And yet, Atomic Blonde’s probably closer to being a bad movie than a great one. At least script-wise. The espionage plot can more or less be summarized by “everyone twists everyone.” Even the characters who are rarely seen, if at all, are twisting everything. Leitch uses an interrogation by an unreliable narrator that frames the events of the story. At times this method works, but other times, little is added, or rather, the natural flow of the story is broken. A conventional telling would likely make things more comprehensible.

With multiple watches, it is a possibility that the numerous pieces, curveballs, and turns fit better and make some sense. Problem is with Atomic Blonde, it’s hard to actually want to go back and immerse into this world any deeper than surface-level. Watching an espionage movie already conditions the viewer (or at least, yours truly) to distance themselves from the characters who make up it. If everything is going to be flipped on its head, what’s the point of getting invested into anything or anyone?

Still, there’s a ton of talent on hand in the film that keeps it afloat. Charlize Theron, of course, can do it all. A dangerous and debonair dame, she’s perfectly cast in the role of Lorraine. An ass-kicker, but takes her share of getting her ass kicked, strong, yet vulnerable. Her dynamic with James McAvoy, having mass amounts of fun being a complete wild card, is compelling. Due to the twisty nature of the genre, however, no characters are given much weight; everyone is disposable to some degree. John Goodman and Toby Jones, while nice to see on screen, play roles anyone could play as nothing is asked of them. Outside of Lorraine and Percival and maybe Delphine (Sofia Boutella), all other characters might as well be a jumbled mass of indiscernible people who sound the same with similar-sounding names.

Looking for a brunette or redhead? Go elsewhere. Atomic Blonde is light and ditzy on characterization and solid storytelling, but high on direction and sensory fun. Blondes do have more fun.

C+

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47 Meters Down: Movie Man Jackson

If you’ve got to do this to win back an ex, he/she simply isn’t worth it. Two sisters in Lisa and Kate (Mandy Moore, Claire Holt) are vacationing in Mexico. Lisa has recently come off of a breakup, but still has feelings for her ex, Stewart, who broke things off because he found Lisa boring.

What better way to make Stewart jealous? By cage diving in a shark-infested ocean while taking pics of the expedition, of course! Despite Lisa’s reluctance and rightful unease, she agrees to do it. After a few calm and fun minutes, the cage breaks away from its rope, sending the sisters spiraling down to the ocean floor. Now, 47 Meters Down with limited radio contact, air supply, and numerous hidden sharks, Lisa and Kate must do whatever’s possible to stay alive and return to the surface.

After the success of The Shallows, it appears that we could possibly be entering a phase in which shark movies are coming back to the big screen during the summer months. Enter 47 Meters Down, a movie that was supposed to go straight-to-DVD last August from Dimension Films, yet was purchased and saved for wide release this summer by Entertainment Studios films due to the success of that Blake Lively vehicle. While there’s baseline genre thrills, 47 Meters Down takes only an average bite in delivering a harrowing tale.

47 Meters Down‘s main problems start with the script, penned by director Johannes Roberts. Particularly the first 10-15 minutes, which set up why the two females feel compelled to do what is ultimately their undoing. The reason, stated before in the first paragraph, is extremely shallow and stupid, considering that we as the audience never see the ex-boyfriend Lisa is referring to. He only exists in a response to a text sent from Lisa when she tells him how much fun Mexico is and how much better it would be if he were there. His paraphrased text? “That’s really cool…I’m moving out my stuff tonight.” He’s totally worth trying to win back.

The few efforts to flesh out the two lead roles do not work, be it via early movie cringey dialogue, or mid-movie “sister-talk.” Mandy Moore and Claire Holt do their best—they’re not insufferable and they’re good at screaming and hyperventilating (Moore, especially) —but with lazy writing, neither is charismatic or talented enough to overcome script deficiencies and make audience truly care for their characters here. Every other person in 47 Meters Down is disposable or inconsequential, aside from Matthew Modine who exists to deliver status updates and key information via radio.

47 Meters Down can’t completely be dismissed, however, because it mostly gets the things right in a shark movie that audiences come to see. While not quite up to the technical quality of better Great White features, Roberts directs most moments and shark attacks with skill, and the addition of rapidly declining oxygen tanks adds some tension. The sharks look very believable, and many different types of shots are used to convey the disorienting and dark depths of the ocean. Most shark movies don’t go as “deep” as 47 does, so that in itself is sort of unique. Although predictable when it is first brought up, there’s a cool final act “twist” that gives some life to the film. Unfortunately, 47 ends flat, with no aftermath follow-up of what comprised most of the runtime.

 

47 Meters Down is OK enough to not be deep-sixed into oblivion, getting by with staple shark movie thrills. But, it’s better to wait and watch this in the format Dimensions Films originally intended.

C

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The Wall: Movie Man Jackson

I’ll let someone else make a witty connection between this film’s title and the 45th president of the United States of America. In 2007, the Iraq War isn’t exactly over, but the pullout of American troops is beginning. Called to lookout after U.S. contractors building a pipeline are killed, Army sniper “Eyes” Issac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and spotter Sergeant Matthews (John Cena), make a move away from their protected positions to scope out the site. It’s been 22 hours, and they’re ready to be evacuated.

Shortly after inspection, all hell breaks loose. Scrambling from the open space fire, Issac finds protection in the form of an unsteady wall. Desperately trying to request help, his radio is not only damaged in the attack, but tapped by the enemy sniper. It becomes clear that Issac and Matthews are in grave danger, but their stalking assailant wants to play wretched mind games before launching a fatal salvo.

In the vein of 2016’s lean thrillers such as The Shallows and Don’t Breathe is The Wall. Director Doug Liman’s most recent film uses the backdrop of Iraq and the war to provide a movie that is technically a war movie, but sharing much more in common with those aforementioned films than a Hacksaw Ridge, Saving Private Ryan, and the like. The Wall ends up summer 2017’s first 100% lean thriller.

Liman, who knows his way around big-budget features in The Bourne Identity and Edge of Tomorrow, seems to relish in directing on this minuscule scale that The Wall carries, reportedly made somewhere in the neighborhood of 3-5 million dollars. The minimalist approach is deployed, and it does immerse the viewer into its setting rather quickly. Music is entirely absent in the movie; one may forget they’re watching one. Swirling winds, the desert heat, and just the general fear of being in a person’s literal crosshairs make for a harrowing viewing experience, and Liman chooses to give little away as it pertains to his villain’s position. It’s a clever use of space, illustrating that distance between characters may be far, but still very claustrophobic.

However, even at a tight 81 minutes, I’d be lying if I failed to say that The Wall did not meander occasionally. Gradually, the audience does find out more about Issac and his reason for still being in Iraq as the war is winding down, giving a little bit of an emotional component. As the film goes on, some attempts are made to parallel—and in the case of the antagonist, somewhat humanize—the characters who lie on each side of the wall divide through Edgar Allen Poe and Shakespeare lines. At best, these parallels are broad, at worst, nonexistent. Not exactly painful-to-listen-to dialogue, but the type of dialogue that doesn’t accomplish as much as it wants to, either. As for the ending, it’s a bold direction, if a little farfetched for a realism-focused movie.

Keeping up his hot momentum after his marvelous turn in Nocturnal Animals is Aaron Taylor-Johnson here. His performance isn’t so much character-driven, but draws more upon the overall fatigue and hopelessness, mental, physical, and emotional, soldiers may find themselves into. This is unequivocally his movie, with the bulk of the camera focused on him, though John Cena provides adequate dramatic support in what is easily his best dramatic performance to date. Laith Nakli is the standard, sinister voice that’s needed for this type of feature when a mysterious character is unseen, think Kiefer Sutherfland in Phone Booth and Ted Levine in Joy Ride.

The first real surprise of the year? With a pretty limited script, a good director and strong performances keep The Wall from toppling over, ultimately making for an efficient war-set thriller.

B-

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The Dinner: Movie Man Jackson

This stuff never happens during brunch. The Lohman family—politician Stan (Richard Gere), his wife, Katelyn (Rebecca Hall), Stan’s brother Paul (Steve Coogan), and his wife, Claire (Laura Linney), are getting together one night for dinner at an upscale restaurant. It’s a busy time for Stan, who’s hoping to get a bill passed and retain his public office role.

But, matters need to be attended to that involve the respective sons of these families. They’ve done something that can land not only themselves in hot water, but undo all of the goodwill and public standing the Lohman family has. Over the course of a few hours, a five course meal is served, but that’s merely a backdrop for a conversation to ascertain what actions—if any—should be taken with their children.

First World Problems? White Privileged? These could also be titles for The Dinner, albeit pointed ones. Director Oren Moverman takes a look at a family in disarray, while asking some questions about parenting, affluenza, and even mental health. These are elements that could make up a compelling movie overall, but, The Dinner isn’t really so.

It’s no surprise that The Dinner is driven by dialogue. Dinner tables have often served for many uncomfortable conversations, and Moverman nails that quality very easily, using the upscale locale and dim lighting to create a stuffy atmosphere. The atmosphere, pretentious and artificial, comes to serve as the representation of the bulk of the four characters. At the actual table is where The Dinner is most intriguing and a tasty bite.

 

Whenever The Dinner leaves the table—not literally, but figuratively—is where the film loses its storytelling and structure. Based off a Dutch novel with the same name, I imagine certain plot points and moments come off better in written word compared to the silver screen. As stated, the mental health of one particular character is a pretty important piece of this film, and at times, the story is told from this character’s viewpoint.

There are a lot of prolonged flashbacks that are designed to give context to characters, but end up breaking the pace and flow. Maybe Moverman was going for a disjointed approach to mirror the mental health issues the character was having, narration is occasionally used as well, but it becomes hard to follow. One flashback in particular involving a Gettysburg memorial visit may be up there as one of the more painful scenes in recent memory, making one question why it was left in the final cut (and it goes on and on and on). The Dinner also seems to struggle a little with point of view, initially beginning with one character, but switching to another in the final act. With that said, the ending isn’t bad, but it would have been nice to see a little more aftermath of it.

The Dinner may be arriving in theaters with little fanfare, but, it does possess an impressive cast to boot. Sadly, Laura Linney and Rebecca Hall can do much more than what they’re gifted with here, which essentially amounts to entitled ice queens. But, each does get a moment or two in the last act to show off their talents. Much of the meat belongs to Richard Gere and Steve Coogan. Gere should run for office; he’s easy to buy into as a politician, and is the one character out of the foursome who garners some sympathy from the viewing audience. Coogan, who may be known more for comedy in some circles, does good as darker details are revealed about his Paul. But the biggest issue may be simply finding one person to truly side with in this morality story, and no amount of solid acting can overcome this.

All of this leaves The Dinner feeling like it should have been prepared more in the kitchen before being served on a plate. Some aspects on it are tasty, but most others are overcooked/undercooked.

D+

Photo credits go to IMDB.com, YouTube.com, and Ew.com

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Unforgettable: Movie Man Jackson

What will Unforgettable teach a person? Have a Facebook account, Twitter account, something. For Julia Banks (Rosario Dawson), everything seems to be fitting into place. She’s just taken the next step in her editorial career, moving to the sunny West Coast. Her personal life couldn’t be any better, finally meeting the man of her dreams, David (Geoff Stults), and set to be a stepmom to his daughter, Lily (Isabella Kai Rice).

Julia has an unfortunate past that she’s managed to put behind her. If only others, such as David’s ex-wife Tessa (Katherine Heigl) could possess her resolve. Instead, Tessa seems consumed with trying to win David back and disparage his new flame (often subtly) at every opportunity. This suburbia ain’t big enough for the three of them.

As I’ve stated before, one of my guilty pleasure film subgenres is that of the psycholover-ex thriller variety. Most never do reach the heights of, say Fatal Attraction or Play Misty for Me, but they can be—sometimes—enjoyable and ridiculous diversions. Well, except for The Boy Next Door, and now, Unforgettable.

There’s an unofficial theory that yours truly has subscribed to when it comes to what makes these types of these movies successful, or at least worthy enough of a Saturday afternoon Oxygen/Lifetime view. It all comes down to the individual playing the antagonist, and how adept they are at playing crazy. Are they easy to buy as being bonkers? Do they find that early movie sweet spot where there’s something just a bit off about them, but still feel enough like a real person and not a caricature?

Being the antagonist in Unforgettable, this pressure falls unto Katherine Heigl to make this fun and…ahem…unforgettable. Sadly, she will not get a gold star for her work here. Not all of the failure in making this enjoyable falls at her feet, as some of the dialogue is tough for any actress to deliver confidently. But for most of the runtime, Heigl comes off more as a spoiled, privileged, word that rhymes with “witch” as opposed to a terrifying psychopath. And she does nothing memorable to try to be dynamic.

As a result, Unforgettable quickly becomes a dull affair with the typical moments befitting a film like this, with the only slight difference in storytelling being an in media res start from first-time feature director Denise Di Novi (producer of Edward Scissorhands and Crazy.Stupid.Love). It would be one thing if the movie and/or some of its stars recognized some of its schlock and just went with it (à la The Perfect Guy and Michael Ealy), but everything is played so rigid one does wonder the point of its existence.

It’s a shame to see Rosario Dawson in such a tepid production. Still, she manages to play her role as best as she can, providing an adequate protagonist to get behind with a little bit of interesting character backstory. Her chemistry with Geoff Stults is fine, Stults being the average man who is laughably oblivious to just how insane his ex is. There’s the occasionally amusing line from comedian Whitney Cummings, but by and large, characters do and say exactly what you think they would, which gives everything a overly mechanical feeling.

What does Unforgettable even mean in the context of this film? Not sure, but outside of it, it’s a horrid title. Even removing the “un” and calling this Forgettable is probably being too nice.

D-

Photo credits go to collider.com, dailymotion.com, and etonline.com.

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