21 Bridges (2019)

21 Bridges (2019)

Directed by: Brian Kirk. Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Sienna Miller, J.K. Simmons. Runtime: 1h 39 min. Released: November 22, 2019.

An embattled NYPD detective, Andre Davis (Chadwick Boseman) is thrust into leading a citywide manhunt for a pair of cop killers and uncovers a massive conspiracy. 21 Bridges is a movie that I expected to enjoy given the talent involved – Chadwick Boseman stars and Joe and Anthony Russo are on as producers, as well. Boseman plays his character well as someone who lives in the shadow of his father, a cop who died when Andre was a kid. Andre is characterized as having a happy trigger finger and being the one who shoots first and never asks questions because they’re already in a body bag.

Boseman is easily the best part of this, and it’s interesting for the story that the trigger-happy detective leads the charge against a pair of cop killers. Everyone is out for blood as the stress is high, as Captain McKenna (J.K. Simmons) puts Davis on the case. It’s interesting as Davis picks tonight to be a good cop and ask questions first as everyone else becomes trigger happy trying to catch Ray (Taylor Kitsch) and Michael (Stephan James). Sienna Miller is also solid as Detective Frankie Burns who teams up with Davis.

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Stephan James and Taylor Kitsch in 21 Bridges. (IMDb)

Instead of really enjoying this, though, most of the film’s developments felt obvious to me and it all felt predictable. The action itself is fine and some of the manhunt scenes are thrilling. It’s just an old-fashioned cop movie, but it doesn’t do enough with its premise. The sound design isn’t good, either, as gunfire constantly drowns out dialogue. The score also misses in a lot of scenes because half the time the music just doesn’t fit the scene. It’s a big booming orchestra when Andre is just looking through the crime scene and then a similarly dramatic score during the big action scenes. It feels awkward.

The premise of the film works well and the fact that they shut down Brooklyn and all its 21 bridges is a good idea for a lockdown sort-of film, but they waste the premise on a standard story. The villains are okay, here. Basically, Ray and Michael learn about a shipment of cocaine and find way more than they thought there would be. They’re both trained military, and Michael has a strong backstory. As the film starts to tell its conspiracy, it’s all terribly predictable. I do think some of the action is good, but the writing showed its cards so often I couldn’t enjoy it.

Score: 40/100

Greta (2019)

Greta (2019)

Greta. Directed by: Neil Jordan. Starring: Chloë Grace Moretz, Isabelle Huppert, Maika Monroe. Runtime: 1h 38 min. Released: March 1, 2019.

Greta benefits most from very strong performances by stars Chloë Grace Moretz and French acting legend Isabelle Huppert. Frances McCullen (Moretz), a waitress in New York City, finds a purse on a subway train one day and returns it to the owner, a lonely piano teacher and widow, the titular Greta (Huppert). They start a friendship from there as Greta Hideg’s deadly agenda is slowly revealed.

I think the most interesting thing about Greta is that, while it’s a stalker story, it sets itself apart in a few ways. A large amount of stalker stories are sexual in nature. Here, it’s more of a mother-daughter obsession. Greta’s lost her daughter and Frances has lost her mom, so Greta gets it in her mind that it’s a natural fit. Frances also says at one point that “I’m like chewing gum, I tend to stick around.” It’s a defining piece of dialogue in their relationship because Greta takes it seriously.

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Isabelle Huppert in Greta. (IMDb)

The characters are also well-written, from Frances’ general naivety to Greta’s loneliness and manipulation. Frances also has a roommate, Erica Penn, played well by Maika Monroe. My main complaint with Greta is the pacing is slow, making it feel longer because of it and it’s only 98 minutes long. Frances trying to figure out what Greta wants with her is an intriguing road to follow.

I liked that this film also took a less traditional approach to the stalker story in structure, as well, as the film’s second half has a slower pace in limited settings. The writing by Neil Jordan and Ray Wright is strong enough, and it features good foreshadowing in some scenes. The last 20 minutes or so are rewarding, and the strong acting keeps things interesting. Moretz captures the anxiety of the situation well, as does Monroe, and Huppert looks like she’s having a blast playing this batshit crazy character.

Score: 63/100

The Two Popes (2019)

The Two Popes (2019)

Directed by: Fernando Mereilles. Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Jonathan Pryce, Juan Minujin. Runtime: 2h 5 min. Released: December 20, 2019.

Behind Vatican walls, the conservative Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) as he aims to step down from the Papacy, and the liberal future Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce) as they find common ground to forge a new path for the Catholic Church.

Blending comedy and drama and strong dialogue from writer Anthony McCarten, The Two Popes is fascinating as it shows Pope Francis’ past life as Jorge Borgoglio (through actor Juan Minujin) as we see his mistakes and his humanitarian efforts, as he tries to improve himself as a person. It’s intriguing learning about his past life, as most of us only know him as Pope Francis.

The film feels like we’re given a tour within the Vatican walls as we get a glimpse into a very human friendship that grows from understanding and compromise. The cinematography (by César Charlone) is immersive as it feels like a documentary crew going through the Vatican.

Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce work so well together and their chemistry is phenomenal, and they create such an interesting story just through their dialogue as they discuss various topics, especially when Borgoglio seeks permission to retire but Benedict won’t let him because he knows he’s his true successor.

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Jonathan Pryce in The Two Popes. (IMDb)

They have some great comedic moments in this film, as well, especially when they dance the tango. That’s what their acting feels like – a pair dancing a compelling tango. My only complaint is slow pacing and if anyone isn’t interested in what the characters are talking about, it could get boring. Hopkins and Pryce maintained my interest, though and it’s more entertaining than I thought it would be.

I think this is the poster boy of a good film that would be forgotten in a very strong year for films. There’s a scene in the credits that I don’t consider a spoiler, as Benedict and Francis bond over the 2014 World Cup between Benedict’s home country of Germany and Francis’ home country of Argentina.

This is the funniest scene of the film for me and it shows how funny them just talking and bonding is, and how sharp the dialogue is. That’s also on the great chemistry between the two. Truthfully, The Two Popes is a strong film, but if the whole movie were just the two Popes commentating the 2014 World Cup, that would be a masterpiece.

Score: 75/100

Togo (2019)

Togo (2019)

Directed by: Ericson Core. Starring: Willem Dafoe, Julianne Nicholson, Christopher Heyerdahl. Runtime: 1h 53 min. Released: December 20, 2019.

Some spoilers follow.

The story of the sled dog, Togo, who led the 1925 serum run in Nome, Alaska, but was considered by most to be too small and weak to ever lead a dog race. Togo is a true underdog story as even his owner, Leonhard Seppala (Willem Dafoe), never thought he would amount to much. We see through flashbacks Togo being a hyperactive pup and smartly getting out of his pen to go race beside Seppala’s sled dogs.

These scenes are charming as we see how Togo becomes Seppala’s most trusted dog. Dafoe is stellar as Seppala as he leads a noble expedition to get the serum from Nenana, about 675 miles away, as the weather is too harsh for the serum to be flown to Nome. The stakes are high because of the diphtheria outbreak in Nome, and this expedition is to save the lives of the town’s children. Seppala leads the dogs but Togo is the lead interest in the film as an aging dog that looks to be on his final legs.

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Willem Dafoe in Togo. (IMDb)

Seppala knows the risks of using Togo as his lead dog because of his age, but he knows that if he doesn’t bring Togo, they’d never make it. The story about a man and his dog is excellent here and the chemistry is great. The drama here is excellent, too, especially with a charming Julianne Nicholson as Constance Seppala who is the only one who really fights for Togo when he’s a pup.

The action here is also breathtaking and so is the cinematography by Ericson Core, who also directs. The action’s at its most incredible when they race across the Norton Sound, ice breaking and all, and the way back is even more intense. The film has all the inspiration of a sports movie, and brief sports scenes of an actual dog race, the All-Alaska Sweepstakes, shines. I’d just love to see a live-action dog racing film that has a similar look and tone, because a feature-length story of a dog race would be great. I’ve only ever really seen a dog race in Snow Dogs in film, but that’s just a goofy comedy.

I think this is an excellent untold story of Togo as he and Seppala traveled the longest out of any of the relay teams of 260 miles through beyond freezing conditions. Togo’s the star of the 1925 serum run, and the film’s not trying to take away any of the fame of the most-known dog of this race, Balto, it’s just sharing the lesser known tale of Togo.

Score: 80/100

The Perfection (2019)

The Perfection (2019)

Directed by: Richard Shepard. Starring: Allison Williams, Logan Browning, Steven Weber. Runtime: 1h 30 min. Released: May 24, 2019.

Some spoilers follow.

When troubled musical prodigy Charlotte (Allison Williams) seeks out Elizabeth (Logan Browning), the new star pupil of her former school, the encounter sends both musicians down a sinister path with shocking consequences. Y’know, I absolutely love movies with a twist.

But with The Perfection, there are about four or five twists sprinkled throughout the film. These are not small twists, either; they are twists that subvert expectations at every turn. I could barely figure out what film it’s trying to be, and when I thought I had figured it out, director Richard Shepard and co-writers Eric C. Charmelo and Nicole Snyder say “Psych!” and change the direction of the film. The changes feel organic to the story, however, and they are rarely frustrating.

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Allison Williams in The Perfection. (IMDb)

That’s what makes The Perfection one of the most unique horror films I’ve seen in awhile as it blends romance, a stalker movie, a virus film, as well as another genre which would border on spoiler. I’ll just say that some characters get their comeuppance and that aspect doesn’t work as well as the others. The third act twists are intriguing, but one aspect is a disturbing pillow to swallow. It’s the only direction of the film I don’t completely love as it becomes slightly too dark for even my tastes, and I think if it was handled in a different this would be in my Top 10 of 2019. (For reference point, this would probably still make my Top 30 out of 200 films.)

Allison Williams and Logan Brown are both great here. Williams plays so many layers convincingly that I swear after this and Get Out, I could never trust her. Steven Weber also turns in a memorable performance as the music teacher who thrives on perfection. It’s a film that is separated into distinct chapters and tones and they are balanced well. The Perfection is a wild, wild ride and it takes so many risks, even if they don’t all pay off. It also never feels like a gimmick where it’s only about its twists, because it gives thought to its characters. It has backbone and for a film that could be very standard, it takes an utterly crazy path, the road less traveled. It’s audacious to its last shot. Truly, the last note I wrote for this film in my notebook was: “Honestly, what the fuck?”

Score: 75/100

Contagion (2011), and my thoughts on the Coronavirus/COVID-19

Contagion (2011), and my thoughts on the Coronavirus/COVID-19

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh. Starring: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law. Runtime: 1h 46 min. Released: September 9, 2011.

Some spoilers follow.

During our Coronavirus pandemic, it seems like everyone is watching Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion. Last week I think this was at No. 35 on the Most Popular Movies IMDb chart and as of this writing (very early morning, March 21) it sits at No. 4 on that popular movie chart. This makes sense, because there’s no better way to make yourself more paranoid right now than watching Contagion.

The film itself is about a fast-spreading virus, the MEV-1, that escalates into a pandemic as the CDC works to find a cure. The spread of the disease is the most fascinating aspect in Contagion, originating in Hong Kong with Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) and escalating quickly from there when she returns home to Minnesota.

The way the virus spreads feels realistic and it’s interesting as it’s established what the “basic reproduction number” is and how quickly it will spread. It’s engaging to watch because of Soderbergh’s apt direction and I love his aesthetic in his own cinematography, as well.

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Kate Winslet in Contagion taking us through the “basic reproduction number.” (IMDb)

I’ve always found this a realistic, engaging drama/thriller. I haven’t watched this since 2015, but watching this during a pandemic, the paranoia hits differently. The mortality rate depicted in the film is 25-30 per cent, where 1 in 4 people will die from it, and according to an article on Business Insider and, I’m copying and pasting this part, “according to Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, COVID-19’s mortality rate is probably around 1%, which is still about 10 times the flu’s.”

The pandemic depicted in Contagion is obviously more aggressive, but there are some eerie parallels to our real-life. It’s also impossible to watch this film and not spot the parallels to our life and this film. Even in the film’s tagline, “Don’t talk to anyone, don’t touch anyone,” feels like our world right now with social distancing.

In the film, the disease starts in a populous place like Hong Kong (Wuhan for Coronavirus), where tourists fly home, infect people at the airport, and then infect people back home as they go about their everyday life. The other big thing is the looting of supermarkets and stores. We’re not at the “looting” stage yet, but I think that all relates back to the panic buying of toilet paper of all things, and the bulk-buying of essentials that others need, too. And I’m sure if someone in real-life suggested there were a cure like in the movie (“forsythia” in Contagion), it could get a little crazy out there with people trying to get it.

Personally, I haven’t seen any of the “looting” but I’ve seen a lot of pictures online about empty grocery store shelves and the lineups getting into COSTCO, or people fighting over toilet paper. I mean, when I went to the grocery store around March 10, there was still toilet paper but less than there usually would be. I also haven’t been outside since March 15, before my province of Ontario declared a state of emergency, so I’m not sure what my local grocery store would look like right now.

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Jude Law wears a Hazmat suit going outside in Contagion. (IMDb)

As of this writing, Canada only has 1,087 cases, and I can only assume it will only get worse here. With some of what I’ve seen, especially the amount of new deaths everyday in Italy and the images of military trucks transporting coffins out of the area feels like it’s straight out of a horror movie. The aggressive way that’s spreading in Italy feels like Contagion, and the most unsettling scene in the film because of that is when a city runs out of body bags.

In our world right now, I think it’s the fear of the unknown of how long this virus will look a week from now or a month from now. When will be able to return to regular living? I go to the movie theatre once or twice a week, but how long will they be closed for? This is turning into a review of Contagion and my thoughts on the Coronavirus/COVID-19, but this is therapeutic sharing my thoughts on it, and also relating it back to Contagion, since I see the world through film.

Contagion could easily be an exaggerated docudrama. There are things here that feel “apocalyptic” that I don’t think COVID-19 will lead us into, but the fact that NHL, NBA and MLB have suspended their seasons and Las Vegas is shut down for 30 days is crazy. It feels different than anything I’ve lived through during my lifetime, especially H1N1 in 2009/2010. I was in high school then and surely did not miss any school because of it. I don’t know if the media is blowing it out of proportion – but when I see tweets of people losing their loved ones to it yet others are still out on spring break, it feels like this should really be taken seriously to “flatten the curve.”

Okay. I just have bad anxiety, depression and I can be a hypochondriac at times, so it’s just a freaky time. I’ll just talk Contagion now. I think it is at its most fascinating when it shows the spread of the disease. There’s one especially great scene when Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer, is trying to find out who Paltrow’s character has come in contact with and she calls someone who is sick on a city bus and tells him to get away from people. The shot of him touching everything is just effective.

The film is interesting when it brings Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) into play, a blogger/journalist and conspiracy theorist who thinks that the virus is manufactured as a profiting scheme for drug companies, using his large platform to stir this fear.

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Matt Damon in Contagion. (IMDb)

At times this isn’t the best with creating well-rounded characters, and some feel more-so identifiable by the actor playing them than the character themselves, and this is very much the case with Laurence Fishburne as Dr. Ellis Cheever, who works for the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). His development is the flattest of the ensemble. Other characters get sidelined, like Marion Cotillard as Dr. Leonora Orantes who is investigating how the disease started in Hong Kong and then totally gets sidelined for half the film for reasons that would spoil it.

Everyone plays their characters very well and the ensemble is impressive. The film is engaging throughout because it’s a fast-paced analysis of a viral outbreak, but for the human side it only shines in a couple moments. One such scene is between Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), who is one of the players working to find a cure, and her father in a very sweet moment. I also liked Matt Damon’s character here, who is the husband of Beth Emhoff, who might as well as be Patient Zero. I think the first time I saw this film (in April 2012), the most surprising thing was Gwyneth Paltrow dying by the 8-minute mark. Once we see how aggressively this virus spreads, it isn’t that surprising, but as an audience member I felt the same way Damon’s Mitch Emhoff feels when he’s told his wife is dead because of the virus. “Right. I mean, so can I go talk to her?” he asks.

I think this is one of the best scenes in the film to show just how quickly it escalates. The fact that he loses his wife and then his stepson in a matter of 24 hours from this virus is so traumatic. There are ways his character could be fit into the story more – since he is immune, I think using his blood as a base for the cure would have given him more purpose – but the way his character plays out is believable. This is especially the case of how protective of he is of his daughter, Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron), and not letting her interact with other people because she’s the only thing he has left. There’s a heartbreaking moment near the end of the film when Mitch processes what’s happened.

The film’s ending is anti-climactic as it shows the origins of the virus in a fascinating scene, to where it all started. It’s anti-climactic in the way that the virus shows up, it gets cured, and life gets back to normal. Hopefully, that will be the case sooner than later with our Coronavirus.

Score: 75/100

The Hummingbird Project (2019)

The Hummingbird Project (2019)

The Hummingbird ProjectDirected by: Kim Nyugen. Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Alexander Skarsgård, Salma Hayek. Runtime: 1h 51 min. Released: March 22, 2019.

Two high-frequency traders and brothers, Vincent (Jesse Eisenberg) and Anton (Alexander Skarsgård), go up against their old boss, Eva Torres (Salma Hayek) as they try to make millions in a fiber-optic deal. The film shows us how a few milliseconds can be the difference between being a millionaire or being irrelevant as the brothers try to build a fibre tunnel that would give them information on the stock market milliseconds before the rest of Wall Street. “It’s like getting the winning lottery numbers at the stock market before they’re drawn,” says Vincent.

The Hummingbird Project shows an intriguing but uneventful battle as the pair try to stay ahead of the market that can change at any moment. Kim Nyugen directs the film with such a precise style, and the attention to detail in his writing makes this feel like a true story. It isn’t, but the characters feel like they could be. It’s more impressive this is a fictional because this seems to be a hard concept to comprehend and Nyugen makes it accessible. The brothers are somewhat interesting as they think they’re David and will be getting ahead of the Goliath company, run by Hayek’s Torres, who has a stranglehold on the stock market.

Eisenberg plays his smooth-talking character well, he seems like a weasel with ulterior motives, but he’s the idea man and his problem solving makes people want to work with him. It’s an intriguing race for a millisecond and I love the inspiration for the title. Anton explains the concept to a bartender to make the concept more accessible, and says a millisecond is “one flap of a hummingbird’s wing.” It’s a compelling race. Hayek plays Torres well, and is bitter they leave her company because Anton’s so brilliant.

Skarsgård plays Anton well, as he spends most of the film obsessively trying to find that millisecond. He looks like Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder and does a dance like his in one of the film’s most exciting sequences. Watching Anton try and shave off the millisecond becomes uneventful after awhile, as the film doesn’t have enough substance to be a wholly compelling thriller. It works well as drama, so it’s weird it’s billed as a thriller on IMDb because it has many slow stretches.

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Jesse Eisenberg and Michael Mando in The Hummingbird Project. (IMDb)

The story’s intriguing and I think Vincent’s desperation to get this done so he can know victory. The finale of the film is good, with some fun moments and it finally feels eventful enough for a thriller. The drama almost always works, like the ethics of putting a line under Amish land when they do not want it. Eisenberg is solid as the character, especially when the stress of the situation brings him to a boiling point where he literally wants to take Goliath down because of how many times she’s undermined him.

He becomes like Gollum in his anger, saying, “I’m stuffing your mattress with money, you’re going to help me up there to tear down that tower.” The zoom on the second half of this line is absolute gold, too. If you like good drama and a strong performance from Eisenberg and are patient enough to wait for the thrills, The Hummingbird Project works because of its strong writing.

Score: 60/100