LOOKING BACK AT 2019: THE “NAUGHTY” AND “NICE” LISTS! NOW THE NAUGHTY!
Part two of Richard’s look back at the year that was at the movies. From a movie that should have been called Replican’t and the return of 60 frames per second to a pitch black fairy tale and Brad Pitt in full-on charismatic mode, the movies have gifted us the best and worst–the naughty and nice, the champagne and lumps of coal–of what Hollywood and elsewhere has to offer.
Here is the Naughty List, a compendium of the time wasters that clogged up screens this year, presented alphabetically.
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THE AFTERMATH: Based on the 2013 book of the same name by Rhidian Brook, most of “The Aftermath” is fiction but the idea of a British soldier sharing his requisitioned house with its former occupants was borrowed from the experience of the author’s grandfather Walter Brook. Unfortunately the love story at the heart of the story feels torn from the pages of a not-so-steamy Harlequin Romance. Characters change abruptly, hissing one second, cooing the next. Kiera Knightley and Alexander Skarsgård’s emotional arcs suggest that the thin line between love and hate is even thinner than previously thought. Their love affair is born out of a desire to feel something, not out of actual desire and, as such, is about as steamy as a cold shower first thing on a Monday morning.
ANGEL HAS FALLEN: If action movies are the heavy-metal of the film world then “Angel Has Fallen,” starring Gerard Butler in his third turn as Secret Service Agent Mike Banning, is the Ywengie Malsteen of the genre. It’s too loud, too frenetic with too many notes. “Angel Has Fallen” plays its hand at every turn, telegraphing the obvious, making sure the audience, who likely aren’t paying attention to the dialogue in anticipation of more explosions, get every detail. That means no suspense, just loud noises. Lots of them. Former stuntman-turned-director Ric Roman Waugh loves to blow things up, filling the screen with flames and your ears with booms. It’s the stuff of action movies, but when coupled with dialogue that sounds like it was run through the Cliché-O-Matic—”I’m not going to stop until I prove you really did this!”—the action is more of a distraction from the story than a compliment to it.
ANNA: In a summer packed with sequels came a movie that isn’t a sequel but feels like one. “Anna,” the action-adventure from writer-director Luc Besson, is a new story but breathes the same air as fist-in-the-air Luc Besson thrillers like “La Femme Nikita” and “Lucy.” “Anna” plays with time. The presentation of the story can’t rightly be called a broken timeline as much as a shattered, twisted and torn timeline. Besson loves his “Five Years Earlier,” “Six Months Later” and “Three Years Earlier” title cards to the point of distraction. H. G. Wells didn’t tinker with time as much as Besson does here. “Memento” seems linear by comparison. What is meant to be a playful storytelling device bogs the movie down to point of narrative puzzlement.
ESCAPE ROOM: In “Escape Room,” the new psychological thriller starring “True Blood’s” Deborah Ann Woll, the young characters don’t have time to mull over the past. They’re too busy thinking of the future and whether or not they will survive long enough to actually have one. The story centers around six good-looking people (Woll, along with Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Tyler Labine, Jay Ellis and Nik Dodani) trapped in a series of immersive escape rooms. The twist? Whoever leaves last is necessarily the winner. “Escape Room” won’t exactly make you want to escape the theatre but it doesn’t really give you a great reason to be there in the first place.
GEMINI MAN: “Gemini Man,” a glossy action-thriller starring Will Smith, feels like a cinematic stew of ideas lifted from other movies. Mix and match “Looper” and “Replicant” with a dash of “Deadpool” and “Unforgiven” and you have a film with that feels like a mild case of déjà vu. Shooting in 60 frames per second and in 3D, Lee fills the screen with hyper-realistic images that seem to pop off the screen. Shrapnel cascades into the audience and a gravity defying ninja hop scotches across the screen to great effect but, for my money, the digital imagery treatment doesn’t have the warmth of film. It feels hard-edged and stark, like old-school video tape, which works well in the action scenes—e motorcycle chase in Columbia is breathtaking—but less so in the more intimate moments. “Gemini Man” will likely garner more attention for its startling look than for its content. An olio of clone and one-last-job movies it feels out of date, like a slick looking relic from the age of direct to DVD action movies.
GLASS: I like a twist as much as the next person. I still remember having my head knocked back by movies like “The Crying Game” and Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense” but can we now call a moratorium on multiple twists? Shyamalan has made a career out of subverting people’s expectations but there are more twists in the last twenty minutes of “Glass” than you can shake a Syd Field book at. In this case more is not more. Leading up to the twist-o-rama is an examination of what would happen if we learned that superheroes are real. To accomplish this director M. Night Shyamalan has Sarah Paulson’s good doctor spend a good portion of the running time trying to convince the superhero that there is nothing special about them. It’s less than dramatic. Worse, the film’s ideas on the existence of extraordinary beings (AGAIN, NO SPOILERS HERE) have been beaten to death in everything from the “X-Men” films to “Watchmen” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”Despite a bit of fun from McAvoy’s ever shifting characters “Glass” is a slog. Talky and meta, it’s being billed as a “film that took 19 years to make,” (aa the sequel to the 2000 movie “Unbreakable”) but doesn’t feel worth the wait.
THE KITCHEN: Set in 1970s Hell’s Kitchen, New York and based on the DCVertigo comic book title of the same name, “The Kitchen” stars Tiffany Haddish, Elizabeth Moss and Melissa McCarthy as mobster wives who take care of business when their husbands are sent to jail. The powerhouse trio at the center of “The Kitchen” can’t sell the film as an effective mob movie or feminist thriller. The characters are quick change artists, morphing from stay-at-home mob wives to stone cold killer criminals seemingly overnight. It’s jarring as are many of the film’s myriad plot twists and turns. Nothing quite adds up, character or story wise, and what might have been an interesting and timely look at dismantling of patriarchal structures it instead finds its female empowerment within violence.
LUCY IN THE SKY: “Lucy in the Sky” is the only movie I can think of that would have been improved by the addition of adult diapers. Loosely based on the exploits of former naval flight officer turned NASA Astronaut Lisa Nowak, the new Natalie Portman movie recreates the troubled astronaut’s cross-country drive minus one juicy detail—the diapers she allegedly wore to eliminate the need for rest stops. The story that inspired the film is ripped straight from the tabloids, all lurid details, but “Lucy in the Sky” glosses over most of them (i.e.: the adult diapers) in favor of an oversimplified look at mental illness that never takes flight.
SERENITY: People who complain trailers give away too much or that movies have become predictable may find something to keep them guessing in “Serenity,” the strange Matthew McConaughey thriller. Or is it a metaphysical drama? Or should I call it a new age noir? I honestly don’t know what to file this under. However you classify it, this weird film will keep you guessing for better and for worse. Strange days indeed. You don’t just see a movie like “Serenity,” you witness it. It is one of the most baffling movies to come along in years. McConaughey is in full-blown “are-we-all-just-pawns-in-a-great-big-game?” mode while Hathaway convincing channels femme-fatale Veronica Lake. Both give heightened performances but the tone of the piece is so off kilter I can’t decide whether they are sleepwalking through this toward a paycheque or doing some edgy work. If nothing else “Serenity” takes chances, not the kind of chances that are likely to please an audience but at least you can’t guess how it will end. Intrigued?
REPLICAS: Near the end of “Replicas,” a sci film starring Keanu Reeves, a clone assesses the state of her being. “I am dead.” She’s referring to her former self, the template for her current physical state, but she could just as easily have been talking about her film, a movie about creating life that arrives DOA in theatres. The creation of life has always fascinated storytellers and audiences alike but “Replicas” is so scattershot—Cloning! Artificial Intelligence! Robots!—it likely should have been titled “Replican’t” for its inability to interestingly explore any of its unfocused ideas. With no interest in the ethical or theological ramifications of the work the movie simply becomes a thriller and not a good one at that. Reeves looks like he’s putting in some effort—he has more dialogue here than in his last three movies combined—but is in full blown “Sad Keanu” meme mode. Downtrodden and desperate, he veers from monosyllabic to bug-eyed, delivering lines with a gravitas that borders on camp. Once upon a time “Replicas” would have gone straight to DVD, decorating delete bins and quickly forgotten. On the big screen it makes no impression, neural or otherwise.
THE UPSIDE: Remake happy Hollywood goes intercontinental, casting its eyes to France for thIS Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart film. “The Upside’s” based-on-a-true-story” odd couple story of a wealthy quadriplegic and his ex-con caretaker is lifted from “The Intouchables,” a movie so popular it was voted France’s cultural event of 2011. Despite strong performances “The Upside” is a slight feel good movie that values melodramatic and manipulation over real emotion.
X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX: Progressive ideas about acceptance are still at the heart of “Dark Phoenix” but all the nuance is consumed in a cosmic bonfire of CGI flames and the messaging is delivered with a mallet. “They can never understand you! What they can’t understand they fear and what they fear they seek to destroy!” The film’s biggest (and only intentional laugh) comes with a good and timely line courtesy of Jennifer Lawrence. “The women are always saving the men around here,” says a huffy Mystique to Professor X. “You might want to think about changing the name to X-Women.” Despite the pyro on display “Dark Phoenix” doesn’t catch fire. The tone is flat, passionless even as a hectic CGI-A-Thon of eye blistering action eats up much of the last reel.