The Foreigner (Campbell; 2017)

To say that Jackie Chan has a specific signature style is an understatement.  At age 63 now, though, he can’t do the death defying seemingly superhuman stunts he was once capable.  He is still in remarkable shape, but a lifetime of stretching your physical capabilities to the limit, punishing your body, and just simple age mean that he has to change the way he approaches his roles.  In The Foreigner he does just that, and while there are still quite a few action scenes Chan does nearly a 180 degree turn from his usual frantic, comic, action based performance and attempts something more serious and thoughtful.

An IRA bombing of a bank kills 58 people and injures 21 in the opening scene of The Foreigner, and among the dead is Fan (Katie Leung) the daughter of Jackie Chan’s Quan Ngoc Minh.  Since she was the last family Quan had left in the world, he is struck particularly hard and also is able to leave everything else in the world behind as he seeks justice and revenge.  His search leads him to Liam Hennessey (Pierce Brosnan) a former member of the IRA who is now reformed and is a prominent Irish politician.  Quan is convinced Hennessey knows who performed the bombing and the remainder of the movie is a cat and mouse game between the two as Quan does whatever he feels is necessary to get the names from Hennessey, and Hennessey in return seeks to stop Quan in order to protect both his career and his family.

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The screenplay for The Foreigner is based on a book called “The Chinaman”.  I have never read the book, so I can’t give a comparison, but I can say the story of The Foreigner is an intelligent and intricate one, but the characters are so thin as to be more plot devices than actual people.   It makes for a somewhat irritating experience because you can truly get swept up in the story, and be honestly surprised as well as impressed by its thoughtfulness and realism, but despite that not a single character in the film has a single character trait beyond events that happen to them.  No one is funny, or gullible, or dour, instead they are a man who has lost his family, a mysterious politician, a nephew with military experience, a wife who doesn’t like her husband, and so on.  What this does is make for a film which can be appreciated, but not enjoyed as you never empathize with anyone on screen.  It’s hard to even say there are protagonists or antagonists in the film, let alone heroes and villains, just a bunch of people whose actions weave together to form a story.

That being said, it’s hard to say whether or not this turn of Jackie Chan’s is a good one.  He shows here that he is still capable of some fun action scenes, damn he is still in great shape, and that he can frown and squeeze out a tear here and there instead of constant smiling and laughter, but with no real personality traits to express we just get a Chan who is much more calm than we are used to rather than a true performance.   The same can be said of every performance in the film, though Chan’s is the only one most are paying close attention to since his is the only great departure from his usual style, there is nothing particularly wrong with the acting, it’s just that there is no character given to the actors to portray.

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The camerawork in The Foreigner never reaches artistic nor impressive levels, but is still very solidly pulled off.  The film has a lot of moving pieces which have to followed, and at no point does it ever become difficult for the audience to do so, though on a handful of occasions it does become a bit awkward to do so with some quick editing which is necessary but comes out of nowhere and could almost certainly have been handled in a better fashion.  Aside from those handful, and they really are rare which is probably why they are so jarring, we get a film that is easy enough to watch that you can forget you are watching things through someone else’s eye, and if you aren’t trying for a visual art piece, that is one of the best things to accomplish in a film’s cinematography.

The pacing of the film is on the slower side.  There is a lot of talk about the past, or about what people should do, or about plans, but there is very little direct action taken by the characters for the vast majority of the film.  This makes for a movie that seems far longer than it actually is, and while the realistic constant twisting of the story is enough to get you to stay until film’s end since you just have to know what’s really going on and you need that sense of closure, you will also find yourself wishing to yourself that they could just move things along already for quite a bit of the running time.

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Final verdict:  The Foreigner is a very mediocre film which also happens to have fantastic plotting.   If political thrillers or revenge stories are really your thing then I would say to give The Foreigner a look, thought not necessarily in the theater.  If characterization is important to you, though, expect to be disappointed, and if you are looking for an over-the-top hilarious action packed Jackie Chan flick then avoid The Foreigner at all costs, or at least seriously reconfigure your expectations to the near exact opposite.  The Foreigner had a lot of potential, but poor character writing kills it for this critic, making it difficult to sit through despite its wonderful story.

 

American Assassin (Cuesta; 2017)

1987 called, it wants its movie back.  I suppose I could have also said that about last week’s It, but in the case of American Assassin its even more true.  Whereas It at least had modern sensibilities where its cinematography, special effects, and treatment of the subject matter are concerned American Assassin feels in nearly every way like a 30 year-old movie in which Michael Keaton has somehow aged and they forgot to write in the corny one liners.  This is a movie in which every American but one is a no questions asked good guy and every one who isn’t an American except one is a no questions asked bad guy.  America – yay!  Not American – Boo.

The premise behind American Assassin is that a guy who hates terrorists (Mitch played by Dylan O’Brien) is recruited by the CIA to kill said terrorists, but one guy who used to have the same job the guy who hates terrorists (“Ghost” played by Taylor Kitsch) now has has gone bad for reasons and is helping the Iranians get a nuclear weapon, because all Iranians really want to do is blow stuff up despite treaties they entered into.  The strokes painted here are so broad as to be downright insulting to anyone with enough reason to see the world in anything other than absolutes.  Add in the old trainer who is so much better than anyone else that you wonder why they don’t just send him in to do the job in the first place (Stan Hurley played by Michael Keaton) and an undercover operative whose main skill is being pretty (Annika played by Shiva Negar) and you have nearly every offensive stereotype in the book pretty well covered.  At least the Deputy Director of the CIA is a black woman, I guess (Irene Kennedy played by Sanaa Lathan), but in this movie its the equivalent of someone saying “I have a black friend”.

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Okay, so cliches are rampant and offensive, but how is the plot?  There was not a single beat or motivation in this entire film that was not both telegraphed and, again, cliche.  Even if you’ve never seen a movie before I find it hard to believe that you wouldn’t see every single bit coming in this movie long before it actually happens.  Add to that the fact that the writers didn’t even attempt to come up with plausible bits of action for our characters – for instance, the bad guy who is the world’s greatest bad ass secret agent gets caught showing his face on security camera easily and immediately for no good reason (it’s not part of some ploy) but apparently that’s okay because the Deputy Director of the CIA doesn’t even think to check security footage – and you have writing that is both inept and broadcast.

The best thing that can be said about American Assassin is that at least the acting and camerawork aren’t as bad as the script.  The actors aren’t given anything to truly work with, and they never manage to rise above the material – even Keaton who seems to be in “doing it for a paycheck” mode – but, they at least show that they may have some promise if they are ever given a decent script and director.    As for the cinematography, the opening is probably the worst bit as its meant to be the main character filming on his phone, but even I who have made the claim that I have never taken a decent photograph could do a better job.  After that, though, the camerawork becomes serviceable, if never in any way, shape, nor form artistic.

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You would think a film in this style would at least be over the top with American nationalism, but we don’t even get that.  There’s no American flags to be seen, no cries for God and country (though, there is one call to prayer), no speeches about American superiority, nor worship of the military.  It’s a film based entirely on terrorists being bad, foreigners being terrorists or at least in league with them, and these facts give Americans an excuse to beat them up and kill them.  That’s the gist.

Final verdict:  The only reason I don’t call American Assassin the worst movie of the year is because the plot was at least mostly coherent, if still nonsensical in its own way.  The script is horrible, the action basic and dull, the characters offensive stereotypes, and even the special effects look like they come straight out of the ’80s.  The only reason to see American Assassin is as a bet with someone you dislike to see who can hold out the longest, either disgust or sleepiness will almost certainly overtake anyone before the movie’s end.

It (Muschietti; 2017)

There is little point to reviewing the story elements of It.  The classic Stephen King novel has been read by nearly every fan of horror and by a great many who aren’t, and there was also a television mini-series made of the novel in 1990 for those who haven’t.  If you haven’t been exposed to the story behind It already, it is either because you are a newborn (who apparently was born able to read – congratulations!) or you have never had the least bit of interest in It in the first place.  In the interest of full disclosure, though, I have to admit before getting into the review proper that my feelings on Stephen King in general and on It in particular is that he is horrible at writing plot, okay at writing character, and one of the best in the business when it comes to description and atmosphere, so take that as you will.

The story of It focuses on an evil clown named Pennywise who appears every 27 years to terrorize and kill the children of the Derry, Maine.  It’s never explained what the clown is, why it appears as a clown, why it has to do this, where the clown gets its powers, what its powers are, where its weaknesses come from, and any number of other questions.   The book’s story is about a group of children who have to confront Pennywise in their just barely pre-teen years then again 27 years later as adults.  This film deals only with the first confrontation as children, though it is more than just hinted at that we will get the film which shows them as adults later, and the children are fairly 2 dimensional characters painted with broad strokes, but at least they are very likable characters we can recognize as at least friends if not as ourselves in some way.

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What It wants to do more than world building, more than giving you strong characters, more than giving you ideas to ponder is scare you, and this it does.  It is an incredibly atmospheric film with days that never seem to be sunny, old buildings that have no business still standing, sewer tunnels, and many other dark claustrophobic locations which you can tell the art directors had a great time working on. The darkness is a tool here, and never a crutch meant to hide the action, just to lend a sense of dread of the unknown to the proceedings.  The special effects and makeup are also incredible making the lack of clarification surrounding Pennywise seem like less an annoying lack of effort on the author’s part and more a genuine use of fear of the unknown.

The best part of It, though, is the performances given by this group of child actors.  Again, what should normally be a weakness of story is used to best advantage in It as the fact that the characters are very two dimensional allow the young actors to grasp onto one or two strong character traits and run with it in their performance.  We have the stutterer who is loyal (Bill played by Jaeden Liberher), the girl outcast tomboy (Beverly played by Sophia Lillis), the foul mouthed smart ass (Richie played by Finn Wolfhard), and so on.  Normally, these broad swathes of characterization would make for dull, predictable protagonists, but here it actually works allowing the kids to really latch onto their roles and give an ensemble performance that really works.

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The R-rating of this version of It means that it is much closer to the book than the 1990 television version.  The kids in this version cuss, there is blood and gore including small children being dismembered, it even addresses some uncomfortable subject matter regarding kids beginning to come into their sexuality, though the incredibly disturbing ending of the children’s story in the book is smartly dropped and changed to something which still gets the same idea across without dealing with child porn.

Compared to the other horror films coming out over the last year or so, It lacks a lot of the intelligence we’ve been treated to.  In films like Lights Out we’ve been treated to three dimensional characters making intelligent decisions or in It Comes At Night we have our lack of knowledge coming from a point of view rather than from a writer lazily not filling in details.  It is a true 80’s throwback in that it relies entirely on atmosphere for its scares making those scares purely emotional, never thought provoking in the least.  While I definitely prefer the more intelligent horror we’ve been getting, and hope Hollywood continues on that trend, It is so well made that this throwback is more entertaining than annoying.

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Final verdict:  It is such a faithful, but fortunately not too faithful, adaptation that fans of Stephen King are almost sure to love it and his haters are quite unlikely to change their minds.  Just like the novel itself the story is silly and makes absolutely no sense under even minor scrutiny, but the kids – characters and actors alike – are so great and the atmosphere so intense that the story’s flaws can be easy to overlook.  Everything about the making of the film is of top notch quality, so whether I recommend it to you or not hinges entirely on how much you like Stephen King, and if you’re neutral I can only say that It is one of the best looking and acted horror movies to come out in a while, but It shows its age where intelligence in the story is concerned esecially when compared to Hollywood’s horror output over the last year, or so.

War for the Planet of the Apes (Reeves; 2017)

In 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes rebooted yet another beloved franchise in the attempt to show us the story of what happened to Earth while the astronauts who feature in the now classic 1968 movie were away on their ill-fated mission.  Most were surprised at just how gripping and intelligent this new take was with a story with themes warning us of the dark road hubris could one day lead the human race down, completely sympathetic and gripping characters despite their hubris, and just the right amount of action to make the film more a blockbuster and less a think piece so it can appeal to a broader audience.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes continued the story of Caesar (Andy Serkis), the leader of the new intelligent species of apes, and once again ended up being an intelligent action film giving us both spectacle and commentary on xenophobia and its insidious and far reaching consequences.  Now we have the trilogy’s conclusion, and with Rise, Dawn, and now War for the Planet of the Apes we get to see the truly rare trilogy in which every part  is masterfully crafted both as an individual work and as one third of a larger epic story.

War for the Planet of the Apes picks up two years after the conclusion of Dawn with Caesar and his clan still hiding in the forests outside San Francisco, but now they are being actively hunted by the remnants of the United States Army who were called in to exterminate the apes by the human colony in San Francisco in Dawn‘s finale.  Caesar has had a new child in the intervening years and his older son has been acting as a scout trying to find a place the apes can relocate to so they can get away from the army without violence.   The news of a new living space reaches Caesar too late, however, as just as the apes are preparing to leave San Francisco they are discovered by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), leader of the army stationed in the area who is bent on wiping out the apes.  A skirmish between apes and man ends with the humans being chased off, but the apes’ losses prompt Caesar to decide the Colonel must be killed at all cost and so he leaves his tribe on a suicide mission to confront the Colonel and end his life.

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War for the Planet of the Apes has all the intelligence and empathy of the two films which preceded it.   This time, the major themes on display are ones of survival, revenge, and fear, though not the xenophobia which was the focus of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  This time the fears are very well known, not unfounded, and inescapable.  It’s less about fear of the unknown, and more about how we act when our fears are justified and right in our face.  Caesar and the Colonel are both charismatic leaders and idolized by those who follow them, and Andy Serkis and Woody Harrelson bring both of these magnetic personalities to life brilliantly.  As is the case in the best fiction, but particularly in the best action adventure fiction, we are given two characters working against each other who are nearly mirror images and the only reason one is considered a hero and the other villain is due to the lengths the Colonel is willing to go to ensure the survival of the human race and the men in his unit.

As has been the case in the first two films in the trilogy, the special effects on display in War for the Planet of the Apes are remarkable.  There are more animated via motion capture actors than live action in the film, but this does not create any lack of empathy in he audience.  The apes are still quite silent, preferring to rely more on sign language than actual speech, so their communication is done with facial expressions and body language and nothing is lost in translation despite the fact that what we are seeing isn’t real.   The environments also change this time, as we leave San Francisco and its forests behind for more northern climes, and again the shots involving the snow covered mountains are gorgeous.  Also deserving special mention is the lighting in the film.  Much of the action takes place at night, but Reeves and his crew never allow that to interfere with our vision either as mistake nor crutch.  We see everything we need to see while still understanding when the action is taking place, and in a Hollywood in which action scenes are literally getting darker and darker this was a pleasant choice.

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This trilogy does have its problems, and one that seems to be consistent across all three films, and that is that since the characterizations and plotting are so intelligent that when a specific bit of action has to be rushed through due to pacing issues that bit really stands out.  For instance, in Rise of the Planet of the Apes what takes years and years to change Caesar’s brain so he has human level intelligence happens overnight with a little gas for the rest of the apes.  In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Caesar is brutally fighting for his life with great strength and agility mere days after being shot with a high powered automatic weapon.  Without spoiling anything, War for the Planet of the Apes also has to fall into similar traps to keep the story moving, and that little bit of dumb shoved inside what is otherwise genius really sticks out.

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Final verdict:  War for the Planet of the Apes ends its trilogy wonderfully, putting this apes trilogy up there with The Lord of the Rings, the original Star Wars trilogy, and the Nolan Batman films as one of the truly great action trilogies in all of filmdom.  Each part can be enjoyed on its own as a complete work and will still be satisfying, but the experience is amplified by enjoying all three as a continuous work.  Caesar will go down as a legendary Hollywood character, and his story as one of the greats.  I hope Hollywood ends it here and does not give in to the temptation to create more films as a cash grab as this really was the finale the story of Caesar deserves.  None of the films are perfect, War for the Planet of the Apes being no exception, but they are gripping and intelligent action films which deserve your attention.  If you’ve seen the first two, War is a must, but you probably already knew that.  If you haven’t seen the first two, you can still enjoy War for the Planet of the Apes, and I recommend you do, but I recommend even more seeing Rise and Dawn before moving onto this one for a far richer experience.

Nocturnal Animals (Ford; 2016)

Amy Adams is Susan Morrow, an art gallery director living in Los Angeles in Nocturnal Animals.  She is living a life many people think they aspire to with multiple penthouse apartments in multiple cities, a husband with a good career of his own and fashion model looks, admiration from the masses, but she feels empty and knows much of the image she projects is a sham.  One day she gets a package in the mail, and in this package is a book manuscript from her ex-husband (Edward Sheffield played by Jake Gyllenhall) of 20 years earlier with a note asking her to read it and asking for her opinion.  Intrigued and nostalgic for her old life, she does so, and this story within a story along with the way she reacts to it is the crux of Nocturnal Animals.

Nocturnal Animals is a well crafted film.  The book within the movie is the more archetypal story with a narrative that builds and crescendos using the classical elements of drama, but Susan’s story as she reads the manuscript and interacts with her world is what gives the movie its real weight and meaning.  One piece of the film could not exist without the other even though they appear on the surface to be separate stories.  Part of me wonders if this is as much a crutch as a device since neither story really has a lot to offer on its own, it is at least a well concealed and used crutch.

The best part of Nocturnal Animals is most certainly the performances from its excellent cast of actors.  Amy Adams shows time and time again in everything she touches that she is truly a jewel in Hollywood’s crown and unarguably one of the greatest actors working today.  Jake Gyllenhall has to play double duty in two different roles in Nocturnal Animals, and one of those two is the largest role in the film, but Amy Adams gets top billing here despite that not just because she gives the best performance but because without her very sensitive and profound interpretation of the character of Susan this film would most likely fail.  Every performance on display is remarkable, and it is obvious that Ford is truly an “actors’ director”,  but Amy Adams stands out even amongst the other great work on display.

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Just rub it in that most of us in the cast never even got to work with her.

The visuals, and in particular the art direction, in Nocturnal Animals is sumptuous, and the one thing that rivals the acting for quality.  The movie takes place in two very different worlds, those being the wealthiest playgrounds of the Los Angeles elite power players and the poorest most remote areas of West Texas.   From the most lush of penthouses to the trashiest of trailers no detail was left untouched and the framing of each shot was also obviously thought through to most take advantage of the environment.  The director, Tom Ford, is known as much or more as a fashion designer as he is a film director, and his eye for detail is most certainly a heavy influence on his directorial style which very much shows in every visual element of Nocturnal Animals.

The success of Nocturnal Animals ultimately, though, falls on the weight of its themes.  It’s what this movie is all about as it makes so apparent, and in that area I cannot give better than a very mixed review.  Nocturnal Animals is through and through a revenge story, and while I can’t give any details about that revenge without spoiling a great deal, the ultimate message seems to be that all of us out there, no matter how well meaning, are rotten to the core and our rottenness spreads and infects even the most innocent and well intentioned eventually.  This message is wielded like a sledge hammer throughout the film, and particularly in its ending.  It’s a message that even though obvious is well stated, but ultimately, why is it a message worth stating?  First off, even if true, it’s something a great many already feel and don’t need to be told, but more importantly, the film gives no solution or advice, just condemnation and anger.  It’s ultimately a nihilistic, pessimistic piece of work.  It can be used as a form of catharsis for those, which would be nearly all of us, who felt they have been wronged by someone in their past but in a film as dark as this one I prefer at least an offer of some sort of solution or a story told in a way that makes us come to surprise revelations about our own nature rather than one that wields negative emotion as a broad sweeping cudgel.

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Investigating the scene where the broad sweeping cudgel was used.

There is a lot to like about Nocturnal Animals, the wonderful performances most of all, but its lovingly detailed visuals and its intricacies of the story are also quite the pleasure to mull over, and almost demand this be a film you view more than once to take everything in.  However, your enjoyment will hinge on whether you can take the themes which are not just dark but downright mean and angry, but nevertheless the most integral part of understanding the story.  I recommend Nocturnal Animals to those who are Oscar junkies, as you will be seeing this movie mentioned in the nominations, and to those who need to vent pent up anger at someone who betrayed you in the past, but if you are a well adjusted casual movie goer, it’s a little harder to determine if this is one you should see.  I guess all I can say is if you find yourself drawn to story within a story plots and don’t worry too much about the positivity nor practicality of a movie’s message, then Nocturnal Animals is a movie for you, otherwise this is one to take in at your own risk.

Rating:  7.2 out of 10