A very short review of “Greta” (2018)

“Greta” (2018) has some of the ingredients of a fantastic thriller: an interesting story concept and the talents of both the wonderful Chloe Grace Moretz and the extraordinary Elizabeth Huppert.  It’s beautifully shot, too.   (Weird trivia — what you’re seeing in much of the film outside of the obvious establishing shots is Dublin, and not New York.  It turns out the Irish city can make a pretty plausible stand-in for the upscale neighborhoods of Brooklyn or Manhattan.)

Regrettably, those ingredients nevertheless combine into an average film; I’d rate this a 5 out of 10.  Until its final half hour or so (when there are a few nice moments, thanks to Huppert), it’s far too slow in its execution.  The tone of the movie feels somehow off, too.  The city is bright and beautiful.  Moretz’ character and her roommate (well played by Maika Monroe) feel too strong and capable to become truly imperiled.  Worst of all, the titular Greta comes across during most of the movie as a vague and ineffectual threat.  (There is a sequence in which she harasses Moretz by simply standing outside her workplace and staring.  It’s unintentionally funny — you’ll know what I mean if you see the movie.)

Don’t get me wrong — this isn’t a truly bad film, only a mediocre one.  If the trailer suggests you might like it, it’s worth the price of a Redbox rental to find out.

 

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A short review of Season 1 of “Jack Ryan” (2018)

I didn’t quite love the first season of the “Jack Ryan” television series, but I still really, really liked it.  It’s a decent adaptation of Tom Clancy’s source material, albeit a very loose one.  (And that’s just fine — we already have a number of excellent films that closely adapt the events of the books; we don’t need another methodical retread of the author’s novels.)  I’d rate this an 8 out of 10.

There are some narrative weaknesses, particularly in the show’s failure to sustain tension between its episodes.  And there are some surprise plot developments that the show telegraphed a bit obviously.  (I usually don’t pick up on these things, but even I saw the clues.)  There is also a subplot involving a drone operator that is largely unnecessary … some viewers will find it interesting while others will not.

“Jack Ryan” also suffers just a little in comparison with the Audience network’s superior “Condor” (2018).  That excellent show covered much of the same subject matter, with its own ordinary CIA-analyst thrust into deadly game with terrorists.  Season 1 of “Condor” was better written, boasted an amazing cast, and was far more frightening.

John Krasinski does a good job as the title character.  I’ve always thought that this character would be tough for an actor to play, simply because he is so consistently nondescript.  (The whole character concept is that he usually appears to be an especially bright but otherwise ordinary civil servant … his background as a United States Marine and his patriotism and courage aren’t things that he advertises.)  Krasiniski’s Ryan is closer to that of the books than the version we see in the Harrison Ford films.  I love Ford as much as the next person, but his interpretation of the character was too a bit too meek and diffident for me.  That wasn’t quite the Jack Ryan that Clancy created.

What’s strange about the show is that it truly shines when deviates widely from the source materiel — especially in the character of Jim Greer.  He is played to perfection here by Wendell Pierce, and he is no longer the gentle, wizened father figure that we saw in his counterpart from the books and movies.  Nor is he a minor character — Pierce’s Greer is a gruff, pissy operations man fresh off of an ominous and unfair demotion, who shoots and runs right alongside Ryan when the bad guys attack.  It sounds preposterously stupid.  But … it works — largely, I think, because of Pierce’s talent.  He’s a good enough actor to sell the idea and he invests Greer with a kind of perpetually disgruntled, antisocial charm.  I honestly would continue watching this show if it focused on him as the main character.

 

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A review of Season 1 of “Condor” (2018)

When Season 1 of “Condor” was good — and it almost always was — it was a cinema-quality spy thriller.  This was a smart, suspenseful, well made TV show that was very nearly perfect — I’d rate it a 9 out of 10.

“Condor” was adapted loosely from James Grady’s 1974 book, “Six Days of the Condor,” and its famous film adaptation the following year, “Three Days of the Condor.”  I’ve neither read the former or seen the latter, but I can tell you that this new iteration of the story is intelligently written, nicely directed and edited, and well performed by its actors.  It seems to channel the modus operandi of Tom Clancy’s books and films — showing multiple thoughtful characters plotting and acting either against or alongside one another — while the show keeps the tension high with sequences of surprise violence.  (And there is indeed some disturbing violence here, particularly when the story calls for it to be perpetrated against non-combatants.  “Condor” aired on the Audience channel on DirecTV; I suspect its content might be too much for a regular network.)

William Hurt has always been a goddam national treasure, as far as I’m concerned.  (I may be biased in my appraisal of his work, as I grew up watching him in films like  1983’s “Gorky Park” and 1988’s “The Accidental Tourist.”  I think he’s one of the best actors out there.)  Seeing his talent colliding with Bob Balaban’s on screen should make this show required viewing for anyone who enjoys spy thrillers.  (There is an extended, loaded exchange between them in a coffee shop here that is absolutely priceless.)

The whole cast is great.  I’ve never been a fan of Brendan Fraser, simply because his movies are usually too goofy for me — but he shines in “Condor,” playing against type as an awkward villain.

Leem Lubany is terrific as the story’s merciless assassin.  (See my comments above about the violence.)  The role doesn’t call for her to have much range, as her character is a somewhat stoical sociopath.  But she looks and sounds the part — combining sex appeal with an incongruous, calm, homicidal intensity.  She reminded me a lot of Mandy, Mia Kirshner’s priceless, plot-driving assassin in Fox’s “24” (2001-2014).

If “Condor” has a failing, then it lies with its saccharine protagonists.  The screenwriters seem to have gone to great lengths to paint an edgy, unpredictable, violent world full of compromised good guys and moral ambiguity.  Why, then, are its handful of young heroes so implausibly perfect?  The putative hero is “Joe,” nicely played Max Irons, who is just fine in the role.  But the writers make him so idealistic, so gentle, so smart and so kind that it just requires too much suspension of disbelief.  At one point I even wanted to see a bad guy at least punch him in the face, simply for being a goody-goody.  It makes the story feel weird, too.  (Who wants to see Jesus in a violent spy thriller?)  The few other protagonists that we see here are also too good — they feel like thinly drawn, cookie-cutter heroes and not real people.

There are some plot implausibilities, too, that I’ve seen pointed out by other reviewers.  (I have arrived at the resignation that others are simply far more perceptive about these things than I am.)  But there was nothing that affected my enjoyment of Season 1.

“Condor” is great stuff.  I recommend it.

 

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A short and spoiler-free review of “Avengers: Endgame” (2019)

Mind. Blown.

If I could tell my 19-year-old self discovering superhero comics in college exactly how good their big screen adaptations would become, I wouldn’t believe me.

I saw “Avengers: Endgame” (2019) tonight with expectations that were very high. It was still better than I thought it would be. It was easily better than last year’s “Avengers: Infinity War” (although I think of them as two halves of the same epic movie).  I don’t pretend to be a film expert, so take this as speculation — I personally think the pair of “Infinity” films have made comic-book movie history in the same manner as the original “Superman” (1978), Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989) and Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy (2005-2012).

I don’t really want to make any more observations, because I’m too afraid of inadvertently posting spoilers.  But I will say that there is a massive tonal change between “Infinity War” and “Endgame.”  The banter and humor of the former is largely left aside, and this concluding story is darker and far more emotionally sophisticated.  It’s moving.  It feels strange to write here, but I kept thinking during the movie that this was a more “grown up” Marvel film.

And it is EPIC.  I honestly can’t imagine how Marvel can top it with future films.  There is an action set piece that made my jaw drop.  I can’t say more.

This is an obvious 10 out of 10 from me.

 

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A short review of “Truth or Dare” (2018)

Blumhouse’s “Truth or Dare” (2018) isn’t high art, but it isn’t quite as bad as everyone makes it out to be.  I’d rate it a 6 out of 10 for being a passably good fright flick.

It’s a gimmick horror film, but the gimmick kinda works –a powerful demon possesses an oral game of “truth or dare” — then follows its players home from vacation with lethal consequences. It’s actually not quite as stupid as it sounds; I had fun with the premise, which sounds like the basis for a decent “The X-Files” (1993-2018) episode.  An exposition-prone minor character explains to our protagonists late in the game that demons need not infect only people and objects, but also “ideas” like games or competitions.  The notion of an idea or a philosophy being demonically possessed has a hint of creative brilliance, and I’d love to see it fully developed in an intelligent, well written horror film.

Alas, this isn’t it.  And instead of lovable heroes like Mulder and Scully, we get a predictable, throwaway group of unlikable teens on spring break.  The movie’s most interesting character is the one it sets up as the stereotypical jerk, Ronnie, adroitly played by Sam Lerner.  The film would have been much better if it had fleshed him out as a three-dimensional character, and had the story revolve around him as a surprise anti-hero.

“Truth of Dare” also borrows maybe a bit too much from “It Follows” (2014) and “The Ring” films (2002-2017). Finally, it confuses the viewer with some head-scratching plot turns near its end.

Oh, well.  The movie still doesn’t deserve the hate it gets.  I figure it’s at least a fun time waster before bed on a weeknight.

 

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