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

In the Shadow of the Moon (2019)

In the Shadow of the Moon (2019)

Directed by: Jim Mickle. Starring: Boyd Holbrook, Cleopatra Coleman, Michael C. Hall. Runtime: 1h 55 min. Released: September 27, 2019.

This film contains spoilers. 

Netflix’s In the Shadow of the Moon is a film has ambition that threatens to knock it down, but its originality keeps it standing for the most part. Boyd Holbrook plays Thomas “Locke” Lockhart, a Philadelphia officer who develops a lifelong obsession to track down a mysterious serial killer (Cleopatra Coleman) whose crimes defy explanation as she resurfaces every nine years.

The character work in this film is strong, as Locke’s wife gives birth the same night a serial killer surfaces and multiple people in Philadelphia die mysteriously of brain hemorrhages and their necks are branded with a three-pronged mark. That night lives in Locke’s memory and then he becomes more obsessed nine years later when she returns for reasons that become clear later.

The film starts in 1988 and goes forward nine years each time, so this spans several decades. Boyd Holbrook gives a memorable turn as Locke. He shows the effect his obsession has on him over the years as it affects his life and career. It’s just interesting what one night can do to a man. He also tries to care for his daughter Amy (Quincy Kirkwood as a child; Sarah Dugdale as an adult) but is literally unable to as the years pass because this obsession is eating him alive. I thought Locke was fascinating.

Bokeem Woodbine is also good as Locke’s partner Maddox. He doesn’t have much to do because it’s Locke’s show, but they are a good pair. Cleopatra Coleman is memorable as the mysterious killer as we try to understand her motives. She’s in a hood for most of the film and shows acting chops when she’s given the chance. The other actor of note in this is Michael C. Hall (TV’s Dexter). The character’s fine, he’s Locke’s brother-in-law, Detective Holt, and he’s a bit of a dickhead who goes against Locke at every turn. His Southern accent is also a strange creative choice, as it’s set in Philadelphia (though, it’s really filmed in Toronto).

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Cleopatra Coleman in In the Shadow of the Moon (IMDb).

The story is intriguing, too. I love the first 18 years of the film and its set-up when people start dying randomly. The detective work and police work in the first 30 minutes is also great as everything in this opening worked for me. I honestly thought it would be the next great detective film looking for a killer whose crimes make little sense. The crimes do make little sense but we get answers by the end of it all. The detective work is consistently there but it eventually becomes more about Locke’s obsession than detective work, but it’s still interesting watching this all unfold.

After the one-hour mark, the film starts to get into the high-concept part of its story. Writers Gregory Weidman and Geoffrey Tock tip their hand too much in one of the years where it becomes clearer how she’s doing the crimes and coming back every so often but finding out the “why” is still enjoyable.

One reason I didn’t love the second half as much is it’s because it’s not as enjoyable watching his life unravel, because he’s likable. The ending is satisfying because of the different turns it takes as Locke learns her motives, and the voice-over narration wraps it up in a tidy bow. I like it because it feels unique and it blends strong detective work and enough science fiction to make it accessible for both genres.

Score: 70/100

Noelle (2019)

Noelle (2019)

Directed by: Marc Lawrence. Starring: Anna Kendrick, Bill Hader, Shirley Maclaine. Runtime: 1h 40 min. Released: November 12, 2019.

This review contains spoilers.

When Santa Claus dies, the mantle is handed down to his son Nick Kringle (Bill Hader), but he’s scared to take on the role and runs away to Phoenix. His sister, Noelle Kringle (Anna Kendrick) must track him down and bring him back so they can save Christmas.

Noelle has some solid fish-out-of-water humour as Noelle goes to Phoenix to find her brother, which gives it an Elf vibe and there’s nothing wrong with channeling a great movie. I’m also convinced that Anna Kendrick makes any film better and it’s no different here as she brings such a charm to this film. Kendrick truly embodies Christmas spirit as Noelle, as Noelle herself learns what Christmas is all about. Bill Hader’s also good as her brother Nick, and their chemistry is enjoyable. Like Kendrick, Hader can make any film better. Elf Polly (Shirley MacLaine) who helps Noelle is also great acting alongside her.

The story itself is predictable, but to be fair, it would be an honest challenge to find a Christmas film that isn’t predictable. Of course we know by the end that Noelle becomes Santa, but it’s the journey that matters. Some of the moments where everyone but her notices that should be the real Santa are sweet, notably when she speaks to a young girl using sign language though she doesn’t know sign language, as only natural Santa’s have a knowledge of every language. Noelle is a good character in her own right, but Kendrick and her general wholesomeness really makes her come alive.

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Anna Kendrick in Noelle. (IMDb)

A problem with the story here is a lack of conflict. The main conflict is getting Nick back to the North Pole so they can save Christmas because of the Christmas deadline. Meanwhile, back at the North Pole, Mrs. Claus (the delightful Julie Hagerty) is stressing because the interim Santa Claus isn’t working out. By the way, Noelle isn’t simply handed the Santa reigns from the start because the role of Santa is “traditionally” played by a man. This interim Santa is their cousin Gabriel Kringle (Billy Eichner) who works in the technology department. He wants to take some of the joy out of Christmas and deliver presents by drone, and he also comes up with an algorithm for the naughty and nice list that only has less than 3,000 “nice” children in the world because all the kids have minor infractions. The film dips its foot into this conflict but it never really feels like it comes into fruition as it’s all talk. The conflict would be nice, though it would have felt like the Toy Santa villain plot in The Santa Clause 2 if it had actually embraced it, and instead feels like filler.

Noelle’s “friendship” interest here is private investigator Jake Hapman (Kingsley Ben-Adir) who helps her find Nick in Phoenix. Her relationship with this man is fine and it’s unclear throughout if it’s platonic or a love interest, or just a friendship based on the spirit of Christmas and helping each other out. Either way, they’re fine together and Noelle’s friendship and kindness to his son Alex (Maceo Smedley) is charming.

Despite its flaws, I think Noelle is a good film as Anna Kendrick’s performance just distracts so well from any shortcomings, and it’s fun throughout, too. It’s also a solid first effort at an original film on the Disney+ service. And in terms of Christmas movies, I don’t know if I’d watch this every year, but Anna Kendrick would sure make me consider it.

Score: 70/100

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

Directed by: Tim Miller. Starring: Linda Hamilton, Mackenzie Davis, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Runtime: 2h 8 min. Released: November 1, 2019.

In Terminator: Dark Fate, an augmented human named Grace (Mackenzie Davis) and Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) must stop an advanced liquid Terminator – a REV-9 (Gabriel Luna) – from hunting down a young girl, Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), whose fate is critical to the human race.

It seems that the best way to breathe some life into a franchise is just to go back to the well and do the same thing over again. That’s what this does as it has a lot of similarities to Terminator 2: Judgment Day. They do a lot of the same things, especially with the REV-9 villain, who is basically just the T-1000, who’s made of liquid metal. The REV-9 is just regular liquid and this one’s new trick is turning into two separate Terminator’s.

Linda Hamilton works well here as Sarah Connor as for the past 20 or so years, she’s been answering anonymous texts that lead her to where Terminators will be. And she kills them, at least most of the time. That’s how she crosses paths with Grace protecting Dani Ramos. Dani is a fine John Connor substitute in this film and learning about her future is interesting. Mackenzie Davis is great as Grace, and she shows some true action star potential. I’ve only seen her in a couple mediocre comedies, but she’s impressive here.

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Mackenzie Davis and Natalia Reyes in Terminator: Dark Fate. (IMDb)

What they do with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character is interesting, too. He’s still the T-800 but named Carl as he’s adapted to human life after accomplishing his mission and staying in our time. The dynamic between the T-800 and Sarah Connor is fiery and tense. Schwarzenegger’s performance is most enjoyable if you don’t try to make sense of the Terminator timeline, because it really doesn’t make sense.

The action in the film is also exciting and there are some good action set pieces. There’s a point where there’s a fatigue with the action, because the film feels long at 128 minutes, but it’s still worthwhile for the most part. The film doesn’t do a lot of anything new but considering Terminator: Salvation isn’t that great and Terminator: Genisys is just a mess, this is a welcome treat.

A little rinse and repeat goes a long way for this sequel that would be an appropriate send-off for the franchise because, while it’s set up for a sequel, I don’t think we necessarily need anything further from this story. We arguably didn’t need this one but I’m glad we got it – it’s just a bit of a shame this story couldn’t have been the fourth film in the franchise in the mid-2000’s when people still kind-of cared about Terminator.

Score: 70/100

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