For 20 years, buying a ticket to a Christopher Nolan movie has meant taking the director up on a bet that we’ll keep up with the scope of a grand vision, to expand our imaginations at the same mind-melting rate as he has expanded the potential of IMAX screens and narrative potential. We gladly call him on the gamble. We may even push all our chips in, if only because that’ll make the ecstasy of exceeded expectations even sweeter in an age when most other major event movies of the IP-mining era tend to prioritize narrative peace of mind over the notion that moviegoers want to be challenged as much as they want to be satisfied.
With Nolan’s 11th feature, the long-anticipated and pandemic-delayed “Tenet,” the filmmaker isn’t daring us to keep up so much as he’s daring us to care. An obsessive tactician who has detonated derelict hospitals and resurrected World War II-era aircraft in the name of blowing our minds (and box office charts), Nolan’s biggest stunt with “Tenet” is his screenplay. To be sure, Big Things Go Boom, including, but not limited to, a titanic airliner, an opera house and an abandoned desert city. But after cementing his legacy with origami streets and characters navigating time-diluted dilemma after time-diluted dilemma, he’s decided to test us with his most practically complex and emotionally arbitrary work to date. Aesthetically, “Tenet” is Nolan at his most maximalist. But maximalism isn’t the same thing as exceptionalism.
A knife, a lighter and a coffee cup are only a few of the objects Russell Crowe uses to exact bloody vengeance in Derrick Borte’s “Unhinged,” a trivially straightforward (and, at 90 minutes, appropriately brief) new thriller that must be the most expensive anti-road rage PSA ever produced.
But make no mistake: While Crowe is the star here, he’s by no means the hero. When he glowers behind the steering wheel of a pickup truck shot to look like an intimidating Cerberus of rubber and metal, it isn’t with the lawful-good virtue of Maximus or Robin Longstride or Jor-El. It’s with the chaotic evil of unbridled macho malice pushed over the edge. The actor becomes the rotten core of 2020 personified.
For how much the Marvel Cinematic Universe has come to be one of the last consistent channels of mass-consumed entertainment and how many billions of dollars it’s made at the box office (or, more accurately, because of it), we’ve gotten comfortable with how those spandex-wearing, one-liner-quipping heroes represent characters whose motivations have less to do with character and more to do with the unassailable appeal of altruistic duty. Even as Tony Stark and Steve Rogers bicker over the ethics of becoming bureaucratic pawns in “Captain America: Civil War,” what differentiates them isn’t really a matter of “I do or don’t want this or that” so much as what’s the most sensible method of fighting the enemies that will continue to come their way. The foe is always as much a driving force, if not more, than the self—it wouldn’t be an MCU movie otherwise, with the exception of the multilayered politics of “Black Panther.”
And that’s all OK…if only because that’s what we want. Packed theaters (oh, how they are missed) and merchandise sales and Halloween costumes are more than enough to shield Kevin Feige and Co. against any other suggestion.
Leave it to Netflix, then, to bring us a comic book actioneer that shows us what the genre is missing, and in a year where we’ve reached July with nary a Wonder Woman or Black Widow to cheer on, no less. A movie about superpowered beings that was probably made for the cost of catering on the set of an “Avengers” movie, but exponentially more considered about the emotional and psychological toll of being a superpowered being, “The Old Guard” is the rare comic book adaptation (I’d call it a “superhero” movie, but things are more complicated than that) where the quiet moments are more interesting than the loud ones.
What does a Tom Hanks performance represent in 2020, as one of America’s most enduring actors – whose consistency on the screen is matched only by his squeaky-clean celebrity – enters a fifth decade of feature film work? Or maybe the question should be: What more can a Tom Hanks performance represent, especially in the wake of a half-decade where Hollywood has both found his perfect archetype while also somewhat pigeon-holing Hanks into the role of non-partisan American hero (See: “Sully,” “The Post,” “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”).
“Greyhound,” which premieres on Apple TV+ Friday, doesn’t really provide an answer. But it does wholly encapsulate the question, to a degree that makes one wonder what Hanks himself thinks of his role in the history of American cinema, and perhaps in the history of American storytelling at large. The movie – a World War II maritime drama that soaks in tempered spectacle and little else – isn’t particularly great (it isn’t horrible either!), with issues stemming from its noncommittal tone. Is this a character study first and tense war thriller second, or vice-versa? That may not be worth contemplating of a movie that feels like it was once an outline for “Call of Duty: Maritime,” with a rote mission structure, faceless/nameless baddies and a general lack of consequence.
Then again, the mere involvement of Tom Hanks – the inimitable Tom Hanks – is enough to complicate the entire equation.
Directed by Aaron Schneider, who won a Best Live Action Short Oscar back when Hanks had still done just two “Toy Story” flicks, “Greyhound” begins by tuning us into the era via radio news reports and transmissions. It’s 1942, and ships carrying crucial supplies to the Allied forces are about to cross the “Black Pit”—so named because overhead air support is unable to accompany them for the next few days.
Schneider’s extensive background manning the camera on TV projects ensures he has the stuff to make the rocky waters of the Atlantic look darkly treacherous, but even more ominous is the threat of Nazi U-boats waiting to torpedo the ships into submission. “Godspeed,” a friendly pilot communicates to Greyhound – the ship leading the convoy – in a message the movie strangely translates via on-screen text, as if they forgot to record the dialogue.
At the helm of Greyhound is Hanks’s Captain Krause, kneeling by his bed and wrapping up a prayer that he’ll live to see land once again. He’s a respected figure, if not for a reputation then for the responsibility he holds for the lives of his crewmen and the several ships following in tow. And even as the movie’s intentions of fleshing out character backstories and unique motivations are practically nonexistent, our decades-long relationship with Hanks is enough to empathize with wanting to follow his every command, meet his every courtesy. In one funny moment, a crewman casually blurts out “f**k” in front of Krause, before immediately apologizing. Why of course—you don’t curse in front of Tom Hanks! And you sure as hell don’t try to sink him (COVID-19 gave its best shot earlier this spring).
Naturally, lurking enemy submarines will try to anyway, for the next four days in the movie and the next 90 minutes on our small screens. A cat-and-mouse game unfolds between the Greyhound and one formidable German U-boat in particular, although what transpires is a domination of aesthetic over an engaging story, making “Greyhound” veer much closer to being “Battleship: The Movie,” even as the movie expends too much effort resisting the urge not to be.
Even with the brief runtime, things begin feeling repetitive once we realize “Greyhound” has shown its hand in a blistering early sequence of high-seas chess between Greyhound and the first sub it encounters. Powered by sonar screams, a strong score from Blake Neely shoulders much of the burden in translating a sense of immediacy, but “Greyhound” also ably instills a sense of yestercentury warfare with constant, nervous chatter of contact bearings and sonar ranges and “steady as we go”—if the movie isn’t totally period-accurate, there’s room to appreciate this early cat-and-mouse match as a show of process more than anything.
The problem is that there’s very little “Greyhound” offers its audience beyond tense moments of high-stakes hide-and-seek. By the time the radio chips with “Target sighted!” for the dozenth time, it all begins to feel a bit numb as an exercise in holding firm under the most intense pressure. Hanks, meanwhile, remains a reliable bastion of determination and defiance in the face of what Krause faces, but we’ve seen more charismatic turns in individual scenes from the actor.
And yet, it’s clear Hanks has an investment in the project. “Greyhound,” nterestingly enough, is one of just three feature screenplay Hanks himself has ever penned, and the first since 2011’s “Larry Crowne.” In adapting C. S. Forester’s novel “The Good Shepherd,” he prioritizes a narrative seemingly hyper-focused but also insistent on carving out emotional stakes for the titular Navy ship’s captain. That the film flirts with a bizarrely ill-fitting romantic subplot – an awkward attempt to make Krause more than just an insomniac order-barker and barometer of grace under pressure – only sharpens the suspicion that “Greyhound” isn’t sure what its most worthwhile version is. And while things don’t stoop to Michael Bay-levels of fetishistic destruction, there’s no believing the screenplay’s attempts at interrogating the casualties of this convoy’s voyage. War’s horrors – more effectively portrayed in “Dunkirk,” “Hacksaw Ridge” and “1917” – are limited to ships burning in the distance, and the remains of enemy U-boats that look like mere oil spills.
And yet there’s something to the way Hanks is utilized that might explain why the movie feels so one-note. If “Greyhound” functions as tribute to forgotten heroes of the world’s bloodiest conflict, it’s at least just as much a vehicle for Hanks to indulge his passions—especially given how the movie’s narrow roads of exploration into wartime loss tend to lead right back to our captain’s furrowed brow and grave stares. Other war movies have explored those effects with other actors, to be sure. But other actors aren’t Tom Hanks. And “Greyhound” is fully aware of the traits shared by both actor and character; how they’re both formidable, successful, fully worthy of a hat tip.
I’m hard-pressed, then, to consider the movie as more than hero worship for Hanks himself; the movie is a comment on Hanks’s celebrity just as much as “The Way Back” is for Ben Affleck’s. Does that mean the mere symbolism of Hanks – the candor, the frankness, the seeming invincibility – is too grand to fit into a technically grand movie about one of history’s grandest events? I’m not sure if I’m willing to go that far. But it’s worth wondering why, in “Greyhound’s” emotional climax of literal applause, it’s much too easy to see not Captain Krause walking the deck of the titular ship, but Tom Hanks himself.
“Greyhound” is rated PG-13 for war-related action/violence and brief strong language.
Starring: Tom Hanks, Stephen Graham, Elisabeth Shue, Michael Benz
When James Gunn introduced a blue-skinned Dave Bautista to the moviegoing masses with “Guardians of the Galaxy” in 2014, it was clear from the eminently quizzical Drax’s first quip that the director had found a diamond in the rough—a mass of muscle with a mouth, a penchant for nailing deadpan comedic timing and the occasional pulse of deep-seeded vulnerability.
Bautista maybe didn’t possess the raw charisma of fellow WWE-wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne Johnson, but there was a novelty to his versatility. It made too much sense that Hollywood would stumble over itself trying to attach the foundling movie actor to big-name projects, whether it be the implied threat of his size or the inherent potential for physical comedy that directors toy around with. “Guardians of the Galaxy” had Bautista making triumphs of that juxtaposition through Drax.
Six years later, that movie (and, to a slightly lesser extent, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”) is the only one to get the Bautista Balance™ right. The 51-year-old actor has been cast as goons and he’s been cast as slapstick machines; more often than not, he’s been a go-to choice when a movie needs some one-dimensional brawn. The greatest irony is how, among a certain section of cinephiles (this critic included), Bautista’s most well-regarded performance is a (very) brief dramatic turn as Sapper Morton, the loner replicant attuned to the philosophical who is dispatched by Ryan Gosling in the opening minutes of “Blade Runner 2049.” For how little Bautista is on screen in “2049,” his sensitivity (pre-wrecking-ball mode) is vital in foregrounding the emotional scope of Denis Villeneuve’s epic.
We’ve hardly seen the mighty Chris Hemsworth as bruised and bloody as he appears in Netflix’s new action extravaganza “Extraction”—that includes his bouts against the dreaded Thanos himself. And yet, Hemsworth – sporting his natural Melbourne accent – rarely feels like less than a superhero even here as he trades in the billowing cape for bullet-proof vest, Mjolnir for the assault rifle.
His name in “Extraction” is Tyler Rake. Occupation: Mercenary. Hobbies: Popping pills and jumping off sky-high cliffs into the water to quiet whispers of pained pasts. If you thought the movie’s overarching narrative linking this humdrum actioneer’s opening credits to the first of its endless shootouts would be less blunt, think again; within about 10 minutes we seen Ovi (Rudhraksh Jaiswal), son to an imprisoned Indian drug lord, kidnapped by a rival psychopath (sporting a pristine suit, of course) and put up for ransom. Promptly entering the other corner of the proverbial ring is Tyler, suited up and hired to…well…I’ll refer back to the title. And, dropped into a version of Bangladesh that “Extraction” makes look like Mars, Tyler lets it rip.
The mayhem is crisp and coherent (I suppose the expertly-maximized gruesomeness of select human disposals is as good a barometer as anything), and it comes courtesy of Sam Hargrave. He’s a veteran stunt coordinator and fellow Marvel alum embarking on his first feature directorial effort, a la “John Wick’s” Chad Stahelski, and his storytelling motivations align almost perfectly with his fist-throwing ones. Bullets fly. Blood spurts. Bones break, occasionally a little louder than we might expect. And, every now and again, a household object comically devolves into an improvised murder weapon. Continue reading →
In a rare moment of rest amid the firework violence and demented glee in “Birds of Prey,” Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn sits back for a bowl of cereal and catches some “Tom and Jerry.” It makes total sense that she’d watch the brash and over-the-top loony tune, which could not be a more apt Easter egg for Cathy Yan’s brash and over-the-top movie, a pseudo-sequel to 2016’s boorish “Suicide Squad” that borrows its predecessor’s pop-punk attitude and dials it up to an R-rated blunt-force romp often reminiscent of the self-aware ultra-bone-breaking of “John Wick.”
It’s also a movie that takes its narrative setup to some delightfully meta and cathartic heights. The DC Extended Universe’s recent re-prioritizing means separating itself from the artistic misfire that was “Suicide Squad,” in which Robbie’s Harley, shackled and oversexualized, is puppeteered by Jared Leto’s edgy, icky Joker incarnation. Harley, and “Birds of Prey,” quite literally sets that past ablaze as she blows up the ACE Chemicals plant – the birthplace of her altar ego – in an unfettered (and target-planting) act of independence early on in the first act. Like the mallet-swinging deviant at its center, Yan’s spike-collared movie forges its own feminist path to stomp down, vengefully tearing into a male-dominated genre with reckless abandon while merging the comical and crass. Though the screenplay from “Bumblebee” scribe Christina Hodson never fully pulls the pin from the grenade in its examinations of female ass-kicker reclaimed from male filmmaker, there are stretches in the inconstantly-paced “Birds of Prey” that joyfully prove it couldn’t care less: Its women are playing by their own rules. Between this, “Black Widow,” “Wonder Woman 1984” and “The Eternals,” 2020 will bring us four live-action superhero movies solely directed by women – there were just two from 2000 through 2019 – and “Birds of Prey” is jaunty enough to be a worthy lighter of the match. Continue reading →
Bullets zip, buildings go boom and wise-cracking crackles in “Bad Boys For Life,” courtesy – once again – of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence’s snarky Miami detectives who have a penchant for the destructive when they’re not looking to loft a vulgar dig at the other. Maybe you didn’t need to be reminded of what the “Bad Boys” series made its name on when it bowed in 1995, but then again, maybe you did—especially considering it’s been a whopping 17 years to get from “Bad Boys II” to this latest entry. After all, “Rush Hour,” another buddy cop action-comedy franchise at least partially inspired by “Bad Boys’s” authority-defying antics, pumped out three movies in almost half that time.
So, yeah, it’s been a while – as in, the industry’s reliance on old-school action fare has completely changed – since we’ve seen Smith’s Mike and Lawrence’s Marcus battle South Florida crime, typically while laying waste to heavily-populated areas and creating anxiety for Joe Pantoliano’s twitchy Captain Howard, who also returns for a third trip around the action spectacle sun. And while director Michael Bay, who helmed the first two installments, isn’t applying his bombastic touch this time, co-directors Adil El Arbi and Bilaal Fallah (styled as Adil and Bilall) do their best impression of him with another series entry that’s high on powder-keg testosterone and higher on its body count. Continue reading →
“We decide what’s impossible,” Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw growls in “Hobbs & Shaw,” the offshoot of the gazillion-dollar “Fast and Furious” franchise that packs enough testosterone to make John Rambo look like Ned Flanders. He’s referring to himself and Luke Hobbs, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s lawman who packs punches, natural charisma and often both at the same time.
I have no doubt they do. Cinema has thrown all the impossible it can muster at Statham and Johnson in recent years – from towering infernos in “Skyscraper” to the “Speed”-influenced if-your-heart-rate-drops-you-will-die insanity of “Crank.” In other words: Just enough so that it wouldn’t be unusual if “Hobbs & Shaw” – which feels like an excess of set piece concepts initially drawn up for the mainline “Fast and Furious” series before being excised – took its leading duo to space.
It doesn’t. Viewed alongside against recent peak “Mission: Impossible” entries, the stunt-tastic “John Wick” series and even the increasingly fast, increasingly furious mainline movies themselves, the action in “Hobbs & Shaw” seemed fairly tame to me. But while two of our biggest action stars throwing punches is the drawing card to “Hobbs & Shaw,” the comedy born of their hilariously interplay are what make the movie’s best bits. Continue reading →
Spider-Man’s movies, more than any other superhero this side of the DC/Marvel divide, are identified by their villains—how memorable they are, and often the tangible connection they have to the movie’s most memorable scenes.
The one with a tentacled Alfred Molina, and the train battle.
The one with a winged Michael Keaton, and the twist that bares its teeth en route to a high school dance.
The one with a cackling Willem Defoe, and that stupendously horrific metal mask.
In “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” the big bad is the big bowl-headed Mysterio—a fascinatingly zany, stoicly formulaic amalgam played by the consistently zany, never-formulaic Jake Gyllenhaal, who fills his armored suit with the unkillable ambition of a smartass whose plans seemingly depend on being little more than a smartass. Gyllenhaal’s presence is the movie’s cheeky wink in A-list actor form, never less than incredulous and never more than high-concept gag, Continue reading →