Extraction (2020): Enjoyable Action That Had Potential to be More

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     “Extraction” was a film that had potential to be good and even great. There are a lot of things that work about this movie. The performances and action are both memorable and fantastic but it is held back by the cinematography, villain and lack of development of some of the minor characters. If you are looking for a fun escape for a bit during the pandemic and enjoy action films chances are you will enjoy this though.

The film was directed by Sam Hargrave and written by Joe Russo.

The story follows Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth) as he works to extract Ovi Mahajan (Rudhraksh Jaiswal) son of an imprisoned Indian Drug-lord out of Dhaka Bangladesh as he is hunted by different factions within the city.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Action – The action for this film is great. There are a lot of kinetic gun and fist fights and great use is made of close corner combats on the streets of Dhaka. We get fights between market vendors and cars and upon layers of apartment complexes. It is really well done with the final fight being a holdout over a bridge.

Betrayals – One of the strongest aspects of the film are betrayals. Ovi was only caught because his father was betrayed as he should have been protected wherever he went. Tyler Rake is betrayed by his old war buddy Gaspar, played by Dave Harbour who has given up on any higher ideals beyond survival. These betrayals add tension to the film as the city is under siege from the Bangladeshi drug lord Amir Asif who had initially kidnapped Ovi and is using all his power to get him back and keep Tyler trapped in the city.

Saju Rav – Saju Rav is Ovi’s father’s enforcer and gives easily one of the best performances and has one of the best arcs in the film. He is doing all he can to protect Ovi as his own family has been threatened by Ovi’s father and if he fails they’ll be killed. He and Tyler are evenly matched and as Tyler shares his own trauma you see how their stories of family motivating them mirror each other. Randeep Hooda does a fantastic job.

Tyler Rake – Hemsworth brings a lot of depth to what would could easily be a blank slate action hero. Thankfully this is not the case as he opens up to Ovi about the loss of his own child and when see why he is a broken character whose team hopes he can keep it together. It is this empathy that he shares that further humanizes him beyond the fact that when we are first introduced to him he is on a bridge badly injured and fighting for his life. Suffice to say, I look forward to “Thor: Love and Thunder” as Hemsworth continues to shine as an action star.

The Cons:

The Cinematography – The cinematography looks like a Michael Bay film and I hate that style of filming. What I mean by the entire film has a sickly yellow sunset sheen to the entire thing and everything feel just out of focus. If a film looks bad the other cons are brought out even further as presentation should catch your eye but in a way that complements the scene, not hurt it.

Lack of Development of the Indian Members of the Team – Khan is the really cool women in charge of the Indian special forces trying to get Ovi out of Bangladesh and besides her worrying about Tyler and going in to rescue him on the bridge I know nothing about her or her motivations. This applies to the rest of the team members too. If even the “Mission Impossible” Franchise can get this write there is no reason that they could have gotten development given we spent way more time with the villain and it did nothing for the script.

The Villain – The Villain Amir Asif is not threatening and not even complex. This is a character who is a controlling bastard with nothing more to him. He is eventually killed by Khan at the end and it felt like an afterthought, which is about how much development he got in this film.

Films that don’t reach good or great is pretty common among the Netflix originals but I’m grateful they are getting made. The potential in these stories give the directors, writers and Netflix the chance to learn and make something better. I wish this film had better taken advantage of where it takes place and developed Khan and her team as they had so much potential. I wish this film had been a collaboration with Bangladeshi or Indian cinema (having a Bangladeshi or Indian writer or director for instance). That I think would have solved the issue of the areas that are underdeveloped (the supporting cast) or not developed at all (the villain). Still, if you are looking for an enjoyable action film, this is a fun escape.

Final Score: 7.5 / 10

Da 5 Bloods (2020): The Intersectionality of Justice

Spike Lee's Da 5 Bloods Netflix Movie Gets Colorful New Poster ...

    Before I get into the review itself, I wanted to write about something that would educate and bring awareness to #blacklivesmatter and the ongoing oppression of African-Americans here in the United States. Reviewing “Star Trek” unless it was an episode that would be related would just feel hollow. What is going on right now is far more important and I come from privilege. Spike Lee has once again created it. This is a film that speaks to ongoing oppression on both the United States and global scale and brings it down to a personal level while tying it to the importance of why it matters and is tied to the now. Without giving away any spoilers, this is an amazing drama and Spike Lee has once again directed and co-wrote one of my favorite films. There are layers to this film that can’t be expressed and that I’ll be going into deeper.

The film was directed by Spike Lee who co-wrote the film along with Daniel Bilson, Paul De Meo and Kevin Wilmott.

The story follows the survivors of of their squad from the Vietnam War, seeking buried treasure and facing their demons they left from the Vietnam War.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

Presentation – Spike Lee does an amazing job of giving us a few different presentations of the narrative. We get flashbacks filmed like a documentary from Vietnam. We have modern interviews and still images and pictures. This gives a rough and real quality as the times we have it with a more modern cinematic quality is when we are with the Old Bloods. The different ways of filming presentation through the film give the film gravitas and history.

The Characters – The characters are who drive the narrative. We have the surviving Bloods (Paul, Otis, Eddie, and Melvin) who each carry the wounds from the Vietnam and carry their PTSD in different ways that give them depth. We have their guide Vinh whose family are Viet Cong, you have Tiên who is Otis’s former lover who he had a child with and you have Paul’s son David as well as the members of LAMB who are trying to get rid of the landmines from the war.

The Bloods – The Blood are the characters who drive the narrative and they are all fantastic. You have Norman who is Young Blood, their leader who taught about Dr. King and Malcolm X and the history of the United States and the oppression of African-Americans in the United States. All the actors do an amazing job but Chadwick Boseman is absolutely fantastic as Norman. We have Melvin who has a family and can’t see beyond his family but sacrifices himself in the final fight to save Otis from a grenade. We have Eddie who was once wealthy but lost it all and has become an activist and member of the Black Lives Matter movement as he remembers that Norman was the one had taught them activism and history. He is sadly killed by a landmine after they’ve recovered the gold. We have Paul who has become selfish after the war. His wife died at childbirth and he could never bring himself to love his son. He’s also a Trump supporter and the closest thing he has to friends are the Bloods. He also blames himself for killing Norman as he did accidentally kill him from friendly fire during the war and was never able to forgive himself. His arc ends with his accepting his son and forgiving himself before he is killed. Paul’s son David also becomes a member of the Blood as he is the one who helped them find the gold and is the character who never stops loving his dad. There is also the one member of the original members of the Bloods who survives, Otis. Otis rekindles a relationship with the woman he left after the war and they had. It is really well done as we see Otis takes painkillers as a way of dealing with his pain and PTSD and is the kindest member of the group. Otis was my favorite member of the Bloods. Clarke Peters is fantastic in the role as are Delroy Lindo, Norm Lewis and Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Jonathan Majors as the other members of the Bloods.

Vinh – Vinh is the guide for the Bloods and has family who were Viet Cong. He is a generation younger than the Bloods and shows them that the war is over and that it is okay to move on. It is his Uncles who pay for the Bloods drinks at the bar and Vinh plays peacemaker between The Bloods and a few other groups they run into. He is thankfully rewarded with some of the CIA gold at the end as he is the one who helps them get it out of Vietnam and the money he has is used to help his business. He was my favorite character in the film and Johnny Trí Nguyễn was great.

Tiên – Tiên is amazing. She is Otis’s former lover and used to be a prostitute during the war. She owns her own house and works with Desroche to help in international exchange. She went through so much as her half-black daughter was looked down upon by the people in Vietnam and the U.S. troops. She brings this all to Otis’s attention and only lets Otis have a relationship with them when Otis uses his money and time to stay. That he isn’t just going to run away again. It is a powerful story and Lê Y Lan is wonderful in the role.

The Intersectionality of Justice – A major theme of the film is the intersectionality of justice. We see this on the International scale with the United States and France’s relationship to Vietnam and how the Vietnam war came about. We see it in the Bloods. African-American soldiers who fought in a war for a country that didn’t even treat them as full human beings with equal rights and how today that still carries through in the prison industrial complex and the killing of African-Americans by cops who then face no consequences…as well as red lining and where resources and power lie. This exploration of resources and power is the basis of Intersectionality in the film and it is beautifully handled through the Vietnamese people we meet and the memories and relationships the Bloods have with the characters they meet.

Black Lives Matter and Connection to the Present – Black Lives Matter is also central to the film. Eddie plans to donate his share of the gold to the movement as he calls our characters back to the present and “the ongoing oppression of our people.” This is something that the surviving members of the Blood aren’t ready to face until after Eddie’s death by the landmine. Even with Norman’s teachings they still just want to live well and forget. This is where the call to action and the movement comes in and in turns calls on us to fight against injustice and speak. The same fight for equality, equity and justice from the 60’s isn’t over as the mistakes and oppression of the past continues. The film highlights this on multiple occasions and it is part of what lends the narrative so much power.

The Cons:

Pacing – There are a few scenes that could have been made shorter and in turn the pacing would have been improved. Paul’s rant in the jungle is the best example of this. It is his meeting Norman after he is bit by the snake that it starts to flow again. This is the greatest example of the pacing issue the film has but there were others too.

The Villain – The villain is a selfish Frenchman named Desroche. He is greedy and out for the gold that the Bloods are seeking. There was no dimension to him and I didn’t believe that he would have let them live if they’d handed over the gold. This was a shame as him being French added another dimension to Vietnam as a colonizer and his soldiers are all Vietnamese people he’s paying. This should have been explored.

This is easily the best film I’ve seen this year. Not only does it answer the “So what?” of the present it also gives us complex characters who grow and change as they face their inner demons. I can’t wait to see what Spike Lee does next. I loved the depth and intersectionality that this film has and the performances are amazing by all members of the cast. I highly recommend and remembering the film’s call for justice.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10 Easily the best movie I’ve seen this year so far.

Here are some resources provided by Black Lives Matter to help restore justice.:

https://blacklivesmatter.com/resources/

“The Witcher” Season 1 – A Promising Start to This Fascinating Universe

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      “The Witcher” is a series that shows so much promise. This is a world where I’ve played some of each of the videogames (1-3) as well as read some of one of the books (“Blood of Elves”). This is a universe that I find fascinating while it is only the show that I’ve full completed a story. This is the perspective I’m coming from outside of reading the wikis. I have an interest in this universe, but am more of a passive fan. So knowing this, what did I think of it? I think this is a show that shows a lot of promise, and I want to see more. I’ll get into more of what works and doesn’t below.

This is a show produced by Netflix and created by Lauren Schmidt Hissrich based on the books by the Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski.

The story follows the Witcher Geralt of Rivea (Henry Cavill) as he hunts monsters and wrestles with his destiny as the sorceress Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra) forges her own path and the Princess Siri of Cintra (Freya Allan) discovers there is more to her past than she realizes.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The World – The World of “The Witcher” is amazing. It is one reason I play all 3 games and can’t wait to see where the stories go. This is a world full of politics, magic, drama and monsters where often times there isn’t a best choice. All these aspects (with the exception of politics which I wish had been explored better) are handled well in the show. I can’t wait to see how Netflix explores this world further.

The Monsters – We see dragons, undead and countless other beasts pulled from Eastern European mythology. The designs are fantastic and this show uses a lot of practical make-up rather than leaning too heavily on CGI and it brings the world to life. The monsters also exist among the humans as it is often the humans who are cursing others and changing them into beasts and who are monsters in their actions.

Yennefer – Yennefer has my favorite arc in the show. She goes from an abused girl who has a humpback and deformity from her elven blood and comes into her own as a powerful sorcerer. She breaks from the Tower and makes her own path before eventually returning to defend the rest of the realm with her mentor from the Nilfgaard invasion. Her relationship with Geralt is beautiful as they are the only ones who are open with each other but at the same time are both still so full of secrets each moment of joy comes with one of pain. I can’t wait to see where her story goes. Anya Cholotra did a great job.

Jaskier – Jaskier is the heart of the story in many ways. He’s an egotistical bard who is out for fame but also cares. He is one of the few friend’s Geralt has in the world and has countless adventures with him over the course of the season. I can’t wait to see more of him in season 2. He’s hilarious and also you can’t help but feel for him too given how open he is compared to the guarded personality that is Geralt.

Geralt – Henry Cavill works in this role. I was surprised how much I ended up liking him. You can tell he’s a fan of this universe and he does a great job of bringing the pain and nobility that drives Geralt in his actions. I hope we learn more about the Witchers as so far Geralt is the only one we’ve seen in the show and I have hopes for how they handle Ciri’s arc as the father and daugther relationship that Geralt and Ciri have is one of the strongest parts of the game.

The Cons:

The Ciri Story So Far – Ciri escapes from Nilfgaard after they destroy her kingdom by using her magic (she discovers she has it when she screams). What this magic means and what drives her beyond survival is never really discovered though, and the supporting characters she meets are no “Hound” from “Game of Thrones” even though her plot is very Arya like as she ends up kidnapped or a different group’s hands after she is on the run. After this she non-nonsensically asks Geralt who Yennefer is, and that is where her story ends. Hopefully season 2 will develop her as a character.

Nilfgaard – The Nilfgaard Empire’s expansion is the main threat in the present day story surrounding Ciri. One of the leaders is trying to capture Ciri and destroys her Kingdom and family. We never get what drives their expansionism though, or even what they believe. They are soldiers in black armor and never become more nuanced than that. They are the Empire when in game they are much more complicated.

Destiny – Destiny is what characters use to explain everything. It is used much as “The Force” in “Star Wars” but is even more flimisly handled. We don’t get the logic behind destiny beyond “The Law of Surprise” which is where you can claim something of someone else’s as a reward after a certain time (though it could be anything from a shovel to a child). Why this law exists is never explained either even though it is the only real explanation we see of how destiny works. I hope next season solves this problem.

This is a series that shows so much promise. There are still problems, Ciri’s story was uninspired and she is pretty much kidnapped from place to place while having no real agency and the threat of Nilfgaard hasn’t been defined. We know they are religious fanatics but know next to nothing about how that fanaticism rose and what drives them. This is a shame as they are much more complex in what I’ve played in “Witcher 3.” I want more of that and Ciri to be a character as compelling as Geralt and Yennefer. She isn’t there yet, but there is still hope to have all parts of this series stand strong.

Final Score: 7.5 / 10 Boosted by the Geralt and Yennefer stories and the actors in those roles.

The Irishman (2019): A Good Reflective Crime Drama

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      “The Irishman” is a film that would have worked better as a show or focusing in on one story. Scorsese is a master of his craft and the film is beautiful, but I also ended up watching this film over 2 days. This film has some really strong stories within the narrative but at times drags and almost spends a little too much time in a time and place. Without getting into spoilers this is a film I’d recommend though, especially to any Scorsese fan.

The film was directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Steven Zaillian.

The story follows Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) as he recounts his time in the mafia.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Cinematography – Scorsese has an eye for scenes and this film is beautiful. At times it feels like a documentary capturing snapshots in history, while other scenes become a drama and the tension is palatable and the scenes are personal. Rodrigo Prieto did a great job.

The Soundtrack – Robbie Robertson composed a fantastic soundtrack. It is kinetic when it needs to be and slow when it fits the narrative too. I loved his work in “The Wolf of Wall Street” and he is once again collaborating with Scorsese to wonderful results. I felt in among the characters because of how involved the music was and I definitely plan to use it for writing in the future.

The Core Character Relationships – The core relationships are what make the film work. Frank and Russell (Joe Pesci) have a mentor relationship that turns into a partnership after Russell brings him into the mob and Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) and Frank have a best friendship that the mob ends when Hoffa becomes a threat.

The Exploration of Time – The film begins in the 50’s when Frank is a truck driver but spends most of the time with Jimmy Hoffa in the 1960’s to the 1980’s. The strongest part of the narrative is our time with Hoffa and I wish that was the story that they had chosen to tell. It is where we see Frank face a dilemma and his choices really change him, besides that he is an enforcer and later leader within the mob and that just isn’t as interesting as his complex relationship with Hoffa.

The Cons:

The Third Act and Pacing – The Third Act and really anytime we are with an old Frank really drag. I didn’t really see the point of it beyond it showing that he in the end he died alone. Whenever we are in the present the film goes really slow and at it was already dragging at points prior. As said above I wish they just could have chosen Frank’s time with Hoffa as everything else doesn’t feel as compelling and is more flavor rather than story. This film is over 3 hours and even with me taking an intermission before finishing it the next day felt like nothing was missed in the interim. That really is what brings it down the most.

I thought this was a really good film. It isn’t as strong as Scorsese’s other work but I loved that he got to work with many actors who he had worked with before. De Niro, Pacino, Pesce are all in their A game and in roles that play to their strengths. The film is also beautifully filmed and the soundtrack is breathtaking. If you are a Scorsese fan, I highly recommend this film. It could have been more but I was still happy with what I got.

Final Score: 8.8 / 10

 

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019) – Bringing Closure to the Amazing Show

    I loved this film. “El Camino” is the perfect Epilogue and closure for Jesse Pinkman and “Breaking Bad” as a whole. “Breaking Bad” is one of my favorite shows of all time, and this film captures so many of those reasons why it is. Like the show the filming is stark in coloration, the music also gives it that intensity and the writing is the perfect example of showing and not telling. No wonder Vince Gilligan created a masterpiece in the show, as he does this so well again here. If you are a fan of the show, you will at the very least enjoy the film. I highly recommend it.

The film was directed and written by Vince Gilligan.

The story follows Jesse after his escape from the Neo-Nazis as he tries to find a way to freedom away from all that has happened as he seeks out his friends and connections for help.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The World – As a fan of the show, it was great finally getting closure. I enjoyed seeing all the characters still alive interact and their connection to Jesse as well as those who were dead and how they were defining the way he would live. The world of “Breaking Bad” is harsh and cruel and there isn’t much hope. Most of the series involves Jesse taking a literal and metaphorical beating so it was wonderful seeing that there were still moments of light in the dark. The soundtrack and cinematography bring this to life too with how stark scenes are shot and even the brightest day can be one of complete isolation and claustrophobia. Dave Porter’s soundtrack brings this world to life to the point that it is like being back in the show once more.

Jesse Pinkman – Aaron Paul is truly an underrated actor. This is a film where we get to fully know the depths of who Jesse is. Jesse is complicated, but in the end he is someone who wants to do good by others. We see that he only kills in self-defense, he wants to give everyone a chance and will surrender if he is ever caught while still doing all he can find freedom and start over. In the end he gets that when he gets revenge against those who built his cage for the Neo-Nazi Meth Game who had enslaved him and when Ed keeps his word and grants him a new identity in life in Alaska. Leading up to this we see Mike talk to him about Alaska being the best place to start over, Walt talking to him about going into business and college, Jane talking about meaning and making your own choices and the support from his friends Skinny Pete and Badger who risk everything for him as he retraces the cook for the Neo-Nazi’s Todd to reclaim his money. It is powerful and I love how much we learn about Jesse.

Is Redemption Possible? – The major theme of the film is redemption and if it is even possible. Jesse has hurt a lot of people and this is a film where we do see him try to make amends. He tells his parents it isn’t their fault he is who he became, and the cleaner Ed he gets him the money and kills to do so, knowing what it will cost him inside, even if revenge is still part of it. Jesse is so broken when he first escapes and it is Skinny Pete and Badger’s compassion that even gives him a chance at a life again and chance for redemption as they do a car swap and give him money to keep the police off his back. Jesse carries that with him. All he has is his life and the desire to live and to not hurt anymore, and in the end the film says there is a chance. The last conversation wouldn’t have been with Jane talking purpose otherwise.

Responsibility and Moving Forward – How redemption is possible is through responsibility. This is fulfilled in the show in Walter sacrificing himself to atone to Jesse and getting the money to his family and we see it once more with Jesse in how he doesn’t kill and at every chance the law accuses him he is surrenders willingly. Ed, giving him his out shows it too as he calls the cops but leads them away and tells Jesse, once he has the money the deal for a new life will happen. They even have a great talk at the end and Ed talks about how he doesn’t care about Jesse’s feelings, he made his choices. He is the closest thing to a father for Jesse in the end and I love their relationship as his stubbornness and in the end helping Jesse does help him to heal. R.I.P. Robert Forster, you were one of the best parts of “Breaking Bad” and this film.

Okay:

Film to Show as New Trend? – The fact that this is a film that is based off a streaming show is a trend that I’m putting as okay, as in I’m a little worried. I look towards Disney plus and see how they could you this trend to gain an even greater monopoly on television than they already have. This is a horrifying thought and I really hope that in the competition between streaming services we get more gems like this that are in no way tied to Disney.

This is a character study of Jesse Pinkman and in that it fully succeeds. We get the beautiful score and cinematography of the show and a bittersweet ending, showing us that maybe there can be hope even in the worst of despair. Like the ending of “Breaking Bad,” this film works. It completes Jesse’s story and I’m glad it was made. Aaron Paul’s Jesse and the amazing supporting cast appearing in this film make this an unforgettable ride. The only way I could see this working again is with a character like Saul Goodman who also has so many characters tied to his story. I don’t think that will happen and that I think that is good. This epilogue gives the show a completion I didn’t know it needed. It was a great ride and one I would highly recommend.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10 The near perfect television film. I wish it had been longer.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018): The Dark Humor and Despair of the “Old West”

      I am a huge Coen Brothers fan. “Fargo,” “Blood Simple” and “The Big Lewbowski” are some of my favorite films of all time and I love the desolation and farcical nature that is brought to so many of their dramas. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is certainly up there with those films, but doesn’t quite reach their level of perfection. Lately they’ve been doing more collaborations but this is wholly a Coen Brothers film as they wrote, produced and directed this film.

    “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a Western anthology that follows the tales of the gunslinger, the thief, the conman, the prospector, the cowboy and the bounty hunter. Each story is haunted with tales of death and destruction as all are faced with choices told in a storybook fashion. The name of the anthology also is the name of the first story within the anthology itself.

I’m judging each story individually before an overall take on the whole, since though they are each connected in theme, it is still an anthology film.

SPOILERS ahead

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is one of the happiest of the tales, as even though death and destruction happen, Buster Scruggs always has a song on his lips and his sheer joy rubs off on the events throughout the story. The story follows Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) the Gunslinger as he goes about from town to town, taking out people who challenge him. It finally all comes to a head when the Man in Black finds him and it is the duel he finally loses, that brings his story to an end. This one was great as a musical and I love Tim Blake Nelson’s energy as Buster Scruggs. He is fun and funny and even though is willing to kill always treats people as a good person first and always has a song on his lips. This is what makes his death tragic, but he does get to go to Heaven and gets angel wings, so his story isn’t entirely tragic…especially compared to the stories that come up later.

Score: 9.4 / 10. The cinematography is beautiful, the music is great and if we’d had more time with characters it could have been a perfect Musical Western.

Near Algodones

This story is comparable to “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” in how absurd it is, though it differs in that it doesn’t have the joy of that story. This is a story of desperation and lack of luck where every situation leads to a worse one. The story follows a young cowboy (James Franco) who is attempting to rob an isolated bank. He fails and is about to be hung by local law enforcement, when some Native Americans attack and leave him to die. Another band of thieves takes him and and they are caught and brought to town to be hung. This is the young cowboy’s second hanging and the one where he finally dies. This was the story that made me wish we’d gotten the Native story in these tales. They are all from the perspective of the privileged old west, which does have intriguing stories, but the Natives are only ever antagonists or in the case of this story, indifferent. Some of that tribe’s story could have been explored in this but instead Franco’s character just takes the long way around to finally getting hung.

Score: 7.5 / 10

Meal Ticket

This story was by far the most haunting and probably my most favorite. There are two characters, the Impresario (Liam Neeson) and his actor Harrison (Harry Melling). Harrison doesn’t have arms or legs and performs speeches and Shakespeare as the Impresario travels through towns to make money. We don’t know how they came about together but we soon see how little the Impresario doesn’t care about Harrison at all leading into a tragic ending, where the Impresario buys a chicken who can do basic math and it is implied he drops Harrison into the river. This is after Harrison has stopped bringing in the money he once did. Liam Neeson plays the Impresario and is wonderfully creepy. He reminds me of a much worse version of Fagin from Dickens’ “Oliver” and seeing just how much he disregards Harrison is powerful as well as Harrison’s fear as Harrison only acts through his eyes and the acting he puts into the shows. This story is all about exploration and despair and how powerless the only good person (Harrison) is in a world that sees him as a burden or something to be exploited. It is a tragedy and easily the best story of the bunch.

Score: 10 / 10.

All Gold Canyon

“All Gold Canyon” is a film focused on the beauty of nature and the ravings of an old prospector (Tom Waits) searching for gold in the wilderness. I really enjoyed this story as so much of it is Man v Nature as the prospector goes through the process of finding gold flakes and eventually hitting the gold but finding himself attacked by a young man who was watching him as he is no longer facing the wilderness but facing the selfishness of humanity. He ends up killing the man after he outsmarts him and buries him in the small hole he created in his search for the gold. It is a really great story with the only problem being how distracting the CGI deer is. There was no reason not to use a real deer given how beautiful the landscape is and the owl looked real at least. If there hadn’t been the deer and bad CGI this story would have been perfect for what it was. I was rooting for the muttering prospector who talks to himself, I wanted him to find the gold and I was happy when he did and survived.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

The Gal Who Got Rattled

“The Gal Who Got Rattled” is the weakest of the stories and brings everything else down. There are far too many characters, none of them are really likable or interesting and it has nothing profound to say and lacks a coherent point. The story follows Alice (Zoe Kazan) who is traveling west with her brother to marry. Her brother dies along the way and we learn she’s been conned and now doesn’t have any money. One of the cowboys falls in love with her and that goes nowhere, and later she is with her brother’s dog when they are attacked by Natives and she ends up killing herself when the leader of the caravan says she should do it cause it is a better fate than getting captured. This one has the same problems as “Near Algodones” in how the Native Americans only exist as a threat and also in that we never get to really know any of the characters. They are doing things but I couldn’t really tell you who they are. This story is cinematically beautiful, but when that is the only thing I’m saying as a pro, you kind of failed.

Final Score: 6 / 10

The Mortal Remains

“The Mortal Remains,” is also one of the best stories of the bunch. This is a story that has an element of magical surrealism to it as for a good portion of the film I thought all the characters might be dead. The story follows 5 characters in a carriage on their way to Fort Morgan in a stagecoach. The conversation unfolds as we learn about our characters and their relationships. From an old religious lady who is coming to see her husband, the Frenchman who says that her professor husband was probably cheating on her, a trapper who has no internal editor and is looked down on by the lady for how unclean he physically is and the Irishman and Englishman who we learn at the end are Bounty Hunters. There is an heir of foreboding through the entire conversation and outside it is dark and covered and mist, this made me think of the afterlife and if they were all being transported their. The fact that the carriage doesn’t stop until they reach Fort Morgan played into this. We see this theme in the hotel they stop at has a stairway of light leading up that the bounty hunters carry the dead body up and in the carriage driver whose face we never see and is always moving. My favorite characters were the bounty hunters as the others with them were a bit bland. We learn their backstory but they are more interesting in how they reacted to their situation and the bounty hunters. Their fear and not knowing what to do made them more compelling than the backstories they shared, which made the story work.

Final Score: 9 / 10. Solidly great. Would have been better with more interesting characters outside of the bounty hunters.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is well worth your time if you are a Coen Brothers or western fan. This film captures so much of what works and doesn’t work about westerns and I loved the absurdity, detachment and sorrow that the Coens bring to their films. This is a beautiful anthology and I would have watched more stories if it had been longer. When it is great it is perfect and when it is flawed it is still enjoyable. Not many anthology films can claim that, as average is easy. This was an amazing film and definitely one of my favorites, though it might not make my Top 5 at the end of the year. This year is a year of steep competition and the things that bring the anthology down are enough to keep it from landing higher up on the list of greats this year. Still, this is a film I highly recommend. Check it out.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10 The bad stories bring it down, though the great stories make this score still very high.

“The Defenders” Season 1 – One of the Best Teams in the MCU and a Worthy Threat

    “The Defenders” is the best show I’ve watched in the Defenders Universe it is a part of since “Daredevil” Season 1. The ending isn’t as good as Season 1 but the characters are more dynamic, everyone grows and even Iron Fist is made into a more likable guy. The strongest part of the show is still the side characters though and we finally have a lot of questions answered that have been hinted on through both “Daredevil” and “Iron Fist.” As far as my non-spoiler thoughts, you don’t need to have watched any of the prior shows to enjoy this one. It stands strong on it’s own and is one of the best creations to come out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

The show was created by Douglas Petrie and Marco Ramirez.

The story involves the leaders of the Hand coming together under Alexandra (Sigourney Weaver) as the Defenders (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, Luke Cage) must come together to stop them and their apocalyptic aspirations for New York City, as well as finding out what it they seek at the bottom of the city.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The Action – This is a series that brings back the best of the action we saw in “Daredevil” Seasons 1 and 2. There are a lot of great action beats as Colleen Wing, the Defenders and others face off against the Hand and those they are manipulating in Hell’s Kitchen. The final fight at the bottom of the city in another world is also really cool too as well as when the leaders of the Hand face off against the Defenders.

The Hand and their History – There are Five Leaders of the Hand who were exiled from K’un-Lun for seeking the cure for death and finding immortality. They find it in the bones of Dragons we discover in this and that is the substance that keeps bringing them back when they die. By the time of this series they use the last of it resurrect Elektra as the Black Sky but it does not go as planned as she kills Alexandra to take control of the group. There are 5 members of the Hand each representing a finger and area of the world, Alexandra, Murakami (who was controlling the Yakuza in Season 1 and 2), Bakuto (from “Iron Fist” is brought back again) and Sowande or “White Hat,” who has been using Harlem to recruit and Madam Gao who has been recurring through a few of the series. Learning about their exile and the reasons they went to K’un-Lun are powerful and I loved seeing them face off against the Defenders. “White Hat” and Murakami are the least memorable but Gao once again shows why she is in my Top 5 MCU Villains given her ability to survive and the tragedy of Alexandra is a nice touch as her personal desire to have Elektra as her daughter, blinds her judgement. All of them are at least interesting even if Murakami and “White Hat” go mostly unexplored.

The Defenders and Coming Together – The Defenders are like a mixture between The Guardians and Avengers. You have the Captain America / Luke Cage / Star Lord leader type, you have the sarcastic damaged fighter in Rocket / Jessica Jones / Bruce Banner, you have the Child Soldier in Black Widow / Iron Fist and Drax who are shaped by personal loss and you have the Iron Man / Daredevil / Gamora in the conflicted hero trying to do good. There is a lot of overlap and I’m curious what lines you’d draw to the similarities between heroes but these were the ones that got me. Seeing the dynamic come together on a small gritty level was wonderful and I can’t wait to see where the show goes from here and how our characters are shaped in their own shows and how that plays into their next team up, which will probably be against Kingpin.

Awareness of the People of Hell’s Kitchen – There is much more awareness of the people of Hell’s Kitchen in this. From Knight and the cops calling them out on being vigilantes, in Luke Cage calling out Iron Fist for beating up scared kids who got pulled into the Hand just looking for a job to survive and how his billionaire privilege shows he doesn’t get it (as well as his race, class and name – Rand). I loved it and I hate how we don’t see this enough in Batman. Bruce Wayne is doing exactly what Iron First was put besides Alfred sometimes and Dawes in “Batman Begins” I can’t think of a time where he’s been called out. This was needed and a lot of this show is calling out Danny for his arrogance and in turn forcing him to grow and truly become a hero. This show is amazing.

The Women of “The Defenders” – The women of the Defenders Universe are the best written characters on this show. Alexandra is dying of cancer but can’t let go of the world she left behind leading it to her protecting Elektra even into her death, Madam Gao is surviving and understands just how powerful the Defenders are (only Hand member who really does) Jessica Jones is working through her trauma and trust and having to work on a team and Colleen Wing is working herself through her Hand conditioning as well as doing all she can to be there for people who push her away. These women made the show amazing and are the best parts of the MCU, especially in this show.

Facing Trauma – So many characters have to face their trauma in this (a running theme of the Defendersverse) with the strongest being Wing’s final defeat of Bakuto (and working through the mind control the Hand put her through) when she is trying to save Danny and blow up the building that holds the substance but we also have Daredevil confronting Stick and his abuse as well as Danny working on his own failure to save the monks. These three best illustrate this theme this season as Jessica Jones is very much doing her own thing and the trauma is so bad she has trouble being close to anyone, even friends.

Okay: The Ending – The ending is okay. This is one thing that the first season of “Daredevil” has over this one as the ending involves the team moving on and Daredevil is believed to be dead (the cave collapses on him and Elektra) and when he wakes up we get hints at the show taking a darker path as everyone he knows believes him to be dead. His sacrifice was okay but we knew a “Daredevil” Season 3 was coming and no one had been set up to take up his mantel if something like this happened to him. These take away from the loss of the moment even though I did enjoy the good-byes and how the character relationships have changed because they’ve all finally interacted and grown from one another, becoming “The Defenders.” The Hand is shut down as an organization at this point though Murakami and Gao survived and both of them have the substance that gives them immortality, so I’m curious how all of that will play out, as well as Elektra’s and Matt’s future.

This was the best to come out of the “Defenders” Universe and is my Second favorite Season if I put them all side by side. Season 1 of “Daredevil” is still perfection for me in this Universe but this gets most of the things right and only really falls short on the ending. It is great to see the Hand explored and truly appreciated as a threat and most importantly I loved the character dynamics between the Defenders and the members of the Hand. These character moments are why this MCU series that Netflix has created is so amazing and it is why I’ll keep coming back. If you haven’t gotten into this universe yet, this Season, like “Daredevil” Season 1 is a great way to do so.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

 

 

Message from the King (2017): Netflix Makes a Revenge Flick

     “Message from the King” is a film that had a lot of potential and could have been great, but doesn’t quite get there. Revenge thrillers are hard to do, I enjoy them but in the last few years the only ones that really stand out to me are the “John Wick” films and this film isn’t that. Chadwick Boseman is fantastic, he really is the only one holding this film up, which is sad because there is so much potential as he is a South African in Los Angeles and all the differences in culture or history and similarities were just dropped. So before I get into spoilers, I recommend it if you like revenge films but there is not much else to keep you here. It isn’t bad but it isn’t good.

The film was directed by Fabrice Du Welz and written by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell who produced it along with David Lancaster and Simon Cornwell.

The story involves Jacob King (Chadwick Boseman) traveling from South Africa to Los Angeles to find his sister. When he finds out what happened to her his revenge quest begins as he hunts down those responsible for what happened.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: Chadwick Boseman – Boseman is the best part of this film. He plays a character who feels like a failure of a brother because he couldn’t take care of his siblings. There is also more going on with him too. After his sister’s torture and murder by the gang in Los Angeles he completes his revenge spree against the gang and we learn he is a cop in South Africa who hides his killing spree from his partners. This added more layers to the character and he was the only character whose motivation I really felt I knew, and that was entirely due to Boseman’s acting.

The Action – The action is solid and you feel a lot of the punches. It is honestly a shame there wasn’t more action as that would have strengthened the film overall. The action scenes stand out because they are at each major point in the story as his revenge spree completes.

The Cons: Many Great Actors No Characters – Luke Evans, Tom Felton and Alfred Molina are all in this playing different types of creeps involved with drugs, gangs and porn. Sadly I could not describe their characters to you as they are so poorly written. This was a missed opportunity as all 3 of these folks can act, I just didn’t see any character there, just plot devices to be destroyed by the protagonist.

I wish I had more to say about this film. There are a lot of decent actors in this (like Tom Felton and Luke Evans) but besides Boseman I’d have a hard time describing them or their motivations. This was a missed opportunity as any good revenge flick should have great villains that are more than evil for being evil or if they are, are at least fun in how awful they are. This film had none of that and would be a made for television movie if it hadn’t come out on Netflix. Again, if you like revenge flicks you’ll get some enjoyment, but beyond that I can’t recommend this film.

6 / 10 Solid action and Boseman keep it from being a complete failure.

“Ozark” Season 1 – An Amazing Story of Those Bound by Secrets and Damage

   “Ozark” is a great show. This is the type of show that takes aspects of “Breaking Bad” as far as the themes of crime, redemption and corruption mixed with the threat of the FBI and the Cartel and centers it around one family, who drives the action and shapes the drama of wherever they are. This is a show I’d seriously recommend and is once again proof that “Netflix” knows how to choose the right shows to make.

The series was created by Bill Dubuque and produced by Media Rights Capital.

The story centers around Martin Byrde (Jason Bateman), a financial planner who ends in deep with the Cartel and must pay off his debt after his company’s money laundering scheme goes wrong. To save himself and wash the Cartel’s money he moves his family the Ozarks, but all is not as it appears to be as he upsets the balance of power that already exists as he races against time against both the FBI investigation and the Cartel.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The Price of Secrets –  A major theme of this show is the price of secrets. Whether it is his wife’s affair and him holding back how long he knew about it, whether it is the truth behind the money he is investing in the Ozarks in order to have it washed and the people affected by this, or the FBI agent and his lover who by keeping in the dark leads to the destruction of his lover’s family and a failure of the initial investigation.

The Art of Mutually Assured Destruction – M.A.D. is a major theme of this show as so much of it is Martin keeping different powers happy, as they know he could end them just as he knows they could end him. We see this in the threat heroin dealers who run crime area called the Snells and them working things out with the Cartel, and also the Langmores, whose father pulls the strings from prison and wants Martin’s money. The reason Wendy and Martin don’t split up after everything is they are both in on it too. They are both guilty so neither will turn on the other as both more than anything want to protect the kids. This threat that the different powers face, especially the Byrds is a huge part of what creates the drama that drives the story and Martin and Wendy’s creation of scenarios where there is some level of M.A.D. against those would harm them.

The Small Push to Corruption – A major theme in the story is the small push to corruption as Martin resists his company working with Del (the leader of the Cartel in the area) until he eventually decides he wants nice things as does his wife. They know Del is dangerous but for both of them the payoff of more wins out as we see them embrace the corruption that leads up to the action that kicks off the show.

The Victory of Small Acts of Good – Even with how dark the show is, there are still small acts of good. Ruth Langmore tries to kill Martin at first under orders from her dad but ends up growing attached to the Byrdes and saves them. We also see how the small acts of the family risking for one another bring them closer together. Even though things look bad at the end as the Snells kill Del and the Cartel now has them on their blacklist, their is finally love and with Ruth almost as an adopted family member now, they’ve grown and aren’t as alone and isolated as before.

Okay: Del’s Ending – Del is played by Esai Morales, who played Joseph Adama in “Caprica.” He is an amazing actor and even though his death advances the threat of the Cartel and turns the Ozarks into a warzone, I still really liked his character and wanted him around, at least for another season as he was both likable and threatening, and it is hard to get that in shows like this…as even “Breaking Bad” only ever achieved it with Mike and Gus. Keeping him alive, even as a prisoner, would have made this issue a pro.

The FBI – I liked the FBI agents and the fact that they were lovers, but I never felt like they had anything on the people around them. They wanted Ruth and Martin so they could take out Del but in the end they gain nothing since the Snells kill Del and Ruth never admits to trying to kill Martin and in the end the Byrde’s cover for her too. I wish they could have been more of a threat as the DEA in “Breaking Bad” feels like just as big of force as the Cartel in that show. I still thought the FBI was used okay, but as of this season, they weren’t a pro.

This was another great Netflix series that I’d highly recommend. If you enjoyed “Breaking Bad” chances are you will enjoy this too as it is cut from the same cloth and tackles a lot of similar things as far as what darkness humans are capable of, as well as what it takes to get someone to the point of corruption, or to turn away from it. For me the main issues were the FBI arc felt incomplete (Glad they have more seasons) and Del’s ending was okay for keeping things in the Ozarks, but it should not have ended in his death. That actor is amazing and the constant threat his character brought, mixed with his reasonableness made him compelling. Lets see where the story goes from here as Del’s boss is still out there as is Ruth’s father, both of who will play a part as future threats for our protagonists.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

“Voltron: Legendary Defender” Season 3 – Great New Characters and Reveals

“Voltron: Legendary Defender” has yet to go wrong. Last season may have dragged a little bit, but each episode has payed off and even the moments of anime tonal dissodance are at this point gone (they were in Season 1 and 2, not 3). For non-spoiler thoughts, check out this season if you are already watching. You’ll meet Prince Lotor and his amazing generals and all our heroes get some amazing development, and you’ll learn about the really cool origins of Voltron. Seriously, should check out this season.

The story picks up where we left off with Shiro missing and the Black Lion needing a new leader and Prince Lotor coming out of exile to lead his people after his father has been put into a coma after the last battle. From here our heroes must find a new team dynamic and figure out Prince Lotor’s plot and stop it.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The New Paladins – With the disappearance of Shiro we have a change in the Paladins! Keith gets the Black Lion, Lance gets his Red Lion and Princess Allura becomes the new paladin over the Blue Lion. It is so cool seeing them figure things out as Keith feels inadequate and his quickness to anger is something he has to temper before they start winning battles. The Prince is always one step ahead of him too which is another issue he is always facing as Allura is also facing the change of becoming a Paladin and the new role it brings her.

Prince Lotor and his Generals – Lotor and his generals are awesome! All of his generals are women and each of them is some type of rogue. They don’t really have other soldiers and they don’t need them. They capture a town without any soldiers present and show how a special elite force is better at achieving ends than a small force. Each of them is Part Galran but none of them are full blooded as far as we know, making them an outlier of the Galra Empire. His overall end is to conquer all the universes using the overwhelming power of Quintessence, at least that is the Galra Empire’s goal. Prince Lotor doesn’t kill (from what we have seen) so may have another agenda separate from that of his father and mother.

Origins of Voltron – Voltron was created by Princess Allura’s father when they discover a comet from another universe that could give infinite power. Emperor Zarkon who was friend’s with Allura’s father falls in love with the alchemist who is experimenting on the substance. Eventually a creature from another universe is brought through and breaks out leading to the Lions and Voltron first being used. After this Zarkon and Alfor having a falling out until he  tricks them into opening up the portal once more (the portal that is destroying his home planet). He does this to resurrect his wife who we later learn becomes Witch Haggar (She was an alchemist from Alfor’s people) they are both believed dead until the Quintessence brings them back to life and the Galra Empire makes war on the galaxy once more to gather Quintessence in order to conquer all, as the last episode ends with Haggar bringing the Emperor out of his coma too as she remembers the history that the episode recounts (that begins with Coran telling the Paladins the origins of Voltron).

Okay/Cons: Too Short – I would say this was perfect season but I wanted more time with Lotor and his generals or more time with Haggar. These were missed development opportunities that only exist because the season is only 7 episodes long, when really this season needed at least 8 or 9. It is still a great season, but this keeps it from perfection. 

This was easily one of the best seasons of the show so far as the new enemy and team make-up gave us tons of character development and helped shape things leading into the most likely finale, as by the end of the season we know what the Galra Empire wants and how it got to be the way it is, as well as what our heroes still need to face internally in order to overcome this final challenge. This was a season that I couldn’t stop watching and is by far one of the best shows to come out on Netflix. I can’t wait to see how they wrap the story up and would watch spinoffs in this universe as the characters and politics keep me coming back.

Final Score: 9.7 / 10 Would have been perfect if more time had been spent developing the Paladins and Lotor further.