Tag Archives: Samuel L. Jackson

Teacher’s Pet

The Protege

by Hope Madden

For one of those hired assassin thrillers to work, it helps to have a convincing lead who has chemistry with the bad guy. Martin Campbell’s The Protégé delivers on both fronts.

And yes, in these films story often takes a backseat to fight choreography, writing rides shotgun to action. This also sounds a lot like Campbell’s latest, although it would be more forgivable if the action stood out enough that you could overlook the shortcomings in story.

Maggie Q is protégé assassin Anna, and while her inner conflict never breaks the surface, Q convinces as she moves bewigged from one set piece to the next. Anna’s mission this time is personal, natch, and her soft spot comes from her mentor, played by Samuel L. Jackson.

How is he? Well, he’s, you know, Sam Jackson. He’s exactly Sam Jackson. That works in almost every other movie, and it works just as well here.

But the real shining treasure in The Protégé is Michael Keaton. His talent, charisma, easy charm and natural good humor elevate every scene. Luckily, he’s in a lot of them, so he elevates most of the film.

Campbell (Casino Royale) stages capable though uninspired action sequences. His script, by action veteran Richard Wenk (The Equalizer), can’t tie character motivation to mystery elements to location or conflict. Instead, it stitches together ideas from a smattering of other films with little concern for coherence.

Perhaps this is why Campbell struggles so mightily with tone. This thing swings back and forth between buddy picture and revenge fantasy, international espionage thriller and romance. The bit that generally drives a film like this—you know, when the steely lead finally faces their demons—feels almost coincidental, leaving it no room to resonate.

The Protégé is not a terrible film. At worst it’s just a waste of your time.  

For A Good Time Call

The Hitman’s Wife Bodyguard

by George Wolf

The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard is not a great movie – heck it’s barely a good movie – but it is a fun movie. And that last part means the film does have pretty great timing.

Because with so many of us returning to movie theaters for the first time in a long time, what is the majority looking for?

A good time. And this film does deliver it, even if it is just one Fat Bastard away from parody.

In case you’ve forgotten, this is a sequel to 2017’s The Hitman’s Bodyguard, and returning writer Tom O’Connor gets us up to speed via Michael Bryce’s (Ryan Reynolds) final therapy session with a doctor who can’t wait to be rid of him.

Bryce has lost his AAA bodyguard license, which is going to make it difficult to win the Bodyguard of the Year award he dreams of. Bryce has also sworn off guns, which becomes a problem once the bullets start flying and director Patrick Hughes (also back from part one) rolls out more direct head shots than a zombie apocalypse.

Bryce doesn’t let the lack of licensing stop him from guarding Sonia Kincaid (Salma Hayek), a spitfire who has no problem shooting first – from the hip or from the lip. Plus, she happens to be married to Bryce’s old nemesis Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson). So while Bryce and Darius are bickering about old grudges, Sonia and Darius argue about starting a family (don’t bother thinking about their ages – just go with it).

The dangerous games come from an evil tycoon (Antonio Banderas on a steady diet of scenery) who’s fighting back against E.U. sanctions on Greece, and from a frustrated federal agent (Frank Grillo) who decides his best bet is to work with bad guys in hopes of catching worse guys.

Hughes proves adept at quick-paced action and satisfying set pieces full of sound and fury, signifying nothing but excess. There’s plenty of globe-trotting to beautiful locales, lo-cut costume changes for Hayek and enough all around ridiculousness to make you wonder when Reynolds and Jackson are going to switch faces.

But the starring trio seems to be enjoying it enough to be in perfect sync – with each other and the level of material they’ve been handed. All three may be on auto-pilot, but their banter is an expletive-laden, rapid fire hoot that’s consistently mischievous and sometimes downright hilarious.

The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard isn’t high art, but it isn’t trying to be. In the words of Bret Michaels and Sam Jackson: it ain’t nothin’ but a good time, motherf^*%$#.

Or Did the Case Solve Us?

Spiral

by Hope Madden

It’s been five years since we’ve had a new episode in the Saw series.

I know! You thought it was longer, right? That’s because the last iteration, 2017’s Jigsaw, was so lackluster and forgettable that you forgot it.

Well, what if they go in a new direction? (Not really, but at least there are name actors.)

What if they bring in filmmakers from the series heyday? Not James Wan and Leigh Whannell. I mean, they have bigger fish to fry. But Darren Lynn Bousman, the guy who directed Saws 2, 3 & 4, is on board. Along with the scribes who penned Jigsaw, Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger.

To summarize, the guys who wrote the worst episode in the Saw franchise have returned with a middling director to take a borderline novel direction for the 9th chapter.

But Chris Rock!

He’s not enough. Neither is Samuel L. Jackson.

We open, as we must, on the first victim. We wander with him into what he doesn’t realize—although we surely do, unless you are very new to this franchise—is a trap, and one that will not end well.

So far so good, to be honest. If this is the kind of horror you enjoy and you aren’t sick beyond words of it just yet, the opening gag is serviceable.

Then we cut to Det. Zeke Banks (Rock), undercover and getting off a couple funny lines concerning the Forrest Gump universe. Nice. But don’t get comfortable because within minutes we’re dropped into Zeke’s precinct, where the coppiest of all the cops vie for most obviously borrowed cop cliché.

Undercover without backup?! You’re off the rails!

Do not team me with a rookie. You know I work alone!

You’re too close!

And so many more sentences articulated with need of an exclamation point. Zeke is, indeed, teamed with a rookie (Max Minghella), the only cop in the precinct who doesn’t hate him for what he did years ago…

Sam Jackson’s kind of fun, though. And it’s hard not to hope that the excruciating opening act exposition and cop grandstanding is all a way to quickly build the world in which these cleverly planned, torturous games are played.

It is not. It is the whole movie. And it isn’t clever, it isn’t fun, it isn’t gory, it isn’t scary.

It isn’t necessary.

Teen Titan

Spider-Man: Far From Home

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Spider-Man: Far From Home has more than a webshooter up its sleeve.

One part reflection on the state of MCU, one part statement on our cartoonishly ridiculous world today, one part charming coming-of-age tale, the latest Spidey episode almost takes on more than it can carry. But return writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers embrace franchise strengths while betting director Jon Watts, also back from Homecoming, can maneuver slick surprises.

The wager pays off, and Far From Home winds up being a film that feels a bit campy for a while, but in retrospect succeeds precisely because of those early over-the-top moments.

Peter Parker (the immeasurably charming Tom Holland), having returned from oblivion (Infinity War), then universal salvation and personal loss (Endgame), would like a vacation. The poor kid just wants to take a trip abroad with his class and get a little closer to his crush MJ (Zendaya).

But that is not to be, is it?

Not with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) following him across the globe, or the surprise appearance of Quentin Beck aka Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), a new monster-slayer from another Earthly dimension.

“You mean there really is a multi-verse?”

That’s a nice nod to the stellar animated Spidey adventure from last year, and a big clue about how self-aware this chapter is determined to be. The front and center ponderings about what Peter (and by extension, Marvel) is going to do now threaten to collapse the film from self-absorption.

To the rescue: a jarring and unexpected pivot, and that wonderfully youthful vibe that now has one eye on growing up.

Interestingly, Tony Stark fills in for the guilt-inducing father figure that’s always been missing from this iteration of Peter Parker’s tale. Without Uncle Ben, Stark becomes that hallowed hero whose shadow threatens to obliterate the fledgling Avenger.

Peter’s still a teenager, after all, and Homecoming soared from embracing that fact, and from Holland’s ability to sell it in all its wide-eyed and awkward glory.

He still does, but now our hero’s naiveté is shaken by some mighty timely lessons. Number one: “It’s easy to fool people when they’re already fooling themselves.”

Not exactly subtle, but fitting for the world of a distracted teen. And for kids of all ages, there’s no denying how cathartic it is to see world leaders, their media lapdogs and widespread buffoonery on blast and blasted across the largest screens, where good will inevitably conquer.

As fun and funny as this keep-you-guessing Eurotrip is, its core is driven by a simple search for truth. And don’t leave early, because that search doesn’t stop until Far From Home plays its second post-credits hand, and you walk out re-thinking everything you just saw.

Tangled webs, indeed.

Shaft Happens

Shaft

by George Wolf

“JJ” Shaft walks gingerly into traffic, taking care to watch for cars. He doesn’t constantly drop expletives and he’s keen on Brazilian dance fighting.

So, he’s a little different from Dad, then?

It’s the first clue that writers Kenya Barris and Alex Barrow and director Tim Story might have a sound plan to bring Shaft into the 21st century. They need one, because successfully transplanting those solidly 1970s sensibilities to present day is a bit of a trick.

The Brady Bunch Movie got around it by having the 90s Bradys still living gloriously 70s while everyone else called them weird. Genius move.

2005’s Bad News Bears remake just tried to tone down the unacceptable elements. Swing and a miss.

Taking much more of a straight up comedic approach than John Singleton’s 2000 sequel, this Shaft‘s culture clashes between John (Samuel L. Jackson) and JJ (Jessie T. Usher) offer some amusingly organic attempts to freshen the air of misogyny and homophobia.

It’s not a bad strategy, but the dam can only be held back so long. Guys, quit being such pansies. Women like real men who only want sex, guns, and any chance to kill people!

And then there’s the matter of the unintentional comedy.

JJ is a data analyst at the FBI who’s also apparently a hacking genius: “This is the most advanced encryption I’ve ever seen…I’m in!” He drags Pops into a completely ridiculous drug case where the clues come easy and the henchman stand straight up in every line of fire while explaining their motivations for giving chase (“It’s that Shaft kid! He saw everything!”)

Is Jackson a wonderful badass who’s perfect for this? Duh.

Does Regina Hall (as JJ’s mother) brighten every scene she’s in? She always does.

Do the samples of Isaac Hayes’s original music remind it’s probably the greatest theme in movie history? You damn right!

And Richard Roundtree again, casually dismissing that “Uncle Shaft” business from last time? Love it so hard.

There are fun elements here, but the lazy execution never fully commits to the promising setup. Shaft’s early self-awareness ends up devolving into self-parody and sadly, I cannot dig that.

Just a Girl

Captain Marvel

by MaddWolf

We had very high expectations for Captain Marvel.

Because showcasing this historic, female Marvel hero offers the chance to see everything from a new lens?

That’s awesome, but no.

Because Oscar-winner Brie Larson is always a kick and we could not wait to see what she could do with such a big movie?

True, but no.

We were pumped because writers/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are amazing filmmakers and we always, always have high expectations for their work. Who cares that it‘s a superhero movie? True, they’ve made their names with indie standouts (Half Nelson, Sugar), but we were betting they could move the setting to “blockbuster” and keep their character-based storytelling instincts.

After a wobbly start, that bet pays off.

So does Larson. She commands the screen—not to mention earthlings and aliens alike—and is a flat-out gas as Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel. Even better is the way Boden and Fleck address sexism with a character who’s basically just always pissed off.

Agent Fury (Sam Jackson – hilarious) is right: the “grunge thing” suits her.

Grunge is a thing because Captain Marvel wallows gleefully in all things 90s – especially the tunes. A glorious action sequence set to Gwen Stefani’s “Just a Girl” is a high point, and could’ve rivaled Kingsman‘s “Free Bird” segment if given a Skynyrd-level running time (lighters down, please). A needle-on-turntable shot seems a bit out of place, but hey, that Nirvana tune that follows goes down just fine.

The throwback vibe entertains and the clever soundtrack kicks all manner of ass—as does Marvel. The humor feels mostly right, the galactic tensions carry greater weight as the film progresses, and both the mid and end credits stingers are winners.

Boden and Fleck (with co-writer Geneva Robertson-Dworet) streamline Danvers’s comic book history effectively, but as is often the case with these origin stories, act 1 still sputters, betraying a lack of intergalactic vision (or too much of a fondness for cheap-ass Star Trek movies). Once Vers (The Captain’s pre-metamorphosis name) hits earth and some deeper themes are woven into the fun, Captain Marvel finds its groove.

Much of that is thanks to Jackson, whose chemistry with everyone is his trademark in films, and his screen time with Larson is always a sparkling, witty treat. Because of its time stamp, the film can also craft an engaging origin story for Fury, Coulson (Clark Gregg) and the entire Avengers project, aided by continually amazing advancements in digital fountains of youth.

Jude Law, Annette Bening and Lashana Lynch sparkle in a supporting cast buoyed by Ben Mendelsohn’s welcome presence. Playing sometimes with, and sometimes against type, he reminds Big Box Office audiences that he’s so much more than his scenery-chewing villains of late. (Boden and Fleck, who cast him in their amazing poker flick Mississippi Grind, already knew this.)

So, over 20 films and DC’s Wonder Woman success later, the MCU offers its first female lead, a fact certainly not lost on Boden and Fleck. They pull no punches when it comes to the idea of heroism: question authority, don’t let anyone tell you what you can and can’t accomplish, fuck mansplaining. Oh, and heroes rescue refugees, they don’t cause them more suffering.

And as much as Wonder Woman earned its acclaim, Marvel manages to one-up DC yet again. Captain Marvel is anchored by even more unabashed girl power, and stands strong on its own while whetting your appetite for what comes next.

 





Standup Comic

Glass

by George Wolf

M. Night Shyamalan has been grappling with expectations for nearly twenty years. They were high when he was blowing our minds with twist endings, but the craving for another Sixth Sense experience led its follow up, Unbreakable, to be wrongly labeled as a step down.

After years of diminished returns led to zero expectations for a Shyamalan project, Unbreakable began to get its due in retrospect, a hand the writer/director played perfectly with the riveting Split three years ago. That film stood tall on its own, but when the drop-the-mic final scene revealed it as an Unbreakable sequel all along, expectations for the next round went skyward pretty damn fast.

Or was that just me?

I know it wasn’t, and while Glass caps the trilogy with a dive into comic book lore that is completely fascinating to watch unfold, it lands with a strangely unsatisfying thud.

Split left us with The Beast – the most dangerous of Kevin Crumb’s (James McAvoy) “horde” of personalities – on the loose in Philly. Glass begins with David Dunn (Bruce Willis), who has spent the years since Unbreakable running a security firm with this son (Spencer Treat Clark in a nice return) and walking the streets as a mysterious vigilante hero dubbed “The Overseer”, tracking him down.

Their standoff leads to an early burst of crowd-pleasing action, and a trip to the psych ward for both Crumb and Dunn – the very same hospital where Elijah “Mr. Glass” Price (Samuel L. Jackson) has been serving his life sentence.

Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) arrives to define the film’s central conflict, telling them all that superpowers are only for comic books, and everything remarkable about their lives can be deconstructed and explained, much like a magic trick.

Shyamalan’s feel for pace and sequencing is fine here, as is his changing color saturation when superhero themes gain strength. The film’s first two acts build a compelling arc on the fragility of human potential set against the ambitious premise of comic books as real life.

As Crumb and his 23 identities, McAvoy is completely mesmerizing once again, able to move freely between contrasting personalities with such incredible precision the understated performances around him seem only right.

Willis’s default setting of steely glares serves him well as the reluctant savior, Jackson gives his scheming mastermind the right mix of brilliance and condescension, and Paulson wraps Dr. Staple in a fitting air of mystery from her first introduction.

It is only Anya Taylor-Joy, returning as Casey “the girl The Beast let go,” whose talent seems ill-placed. While Casey is seemingly there as a reminder of Crumb’s humanity, the frequent tight closeups on Taylor-Joy’s comic book ready eyes become a heavy handed blur to the message.

But with Split putting Shyamalan firmly back in his groove, expectations for an unforgettable end to the trilogy create a uniquely painted corner. Potent storytelling gives way to declarations that ring of self-serving defenses of the filmmaker’s own work, while more obvious foreshadowing overtakes the nifty, hide-in-plain-sight subtlety.

Would Glass have worked better if we hadn’t been standing around staring all this time? Probably. but Shyamalan got us here with skill, and he gets us out with a film that’s easy to respect, but hard to cheer for.





Badass Bromance

The Hitman’s Bodyguard

by Hope Madden

Who remembers Safe House, the passable 2012 action flick that sees Ryan Reynolds in over his head trying to keep an international assassin, played by Denzel Washington, safe?

Well, lobotomize Safe House, swap in Samuel L. Jackson for Denzel, trade grit for humor and you have the mid-August version of an action comedy, The Hitman’s Bodyguard.

Jackson is Darius Kincaid.

No he isn’t. He’s an underwritten tough guy, filled out with characteristic Jacksonisms: foul language and swagger. He’s Samuel L. Jackson, motherfucker.

Likewise, Reynolds may go by Michael Bryce, but this is prototypical Reynolds, all sarcastic charm and self-loathing.

Bring them together: glib meets badass. They take a bullet-riddled road trip, Bryce trying to keep Kincaid safe long enough to testify against the former president of Belarus, a war criminal and all-around evildoer, played, naturally, by Gary Oldman.

Of course he is.

No, not a lot of acting muscles are being overworked in this one.

Writing muscles either, for that matter. The film coasts on mostly ludicrous but sometimes fun set pieces energized by the silly sniping happening as the Jackson/Reynolds bromance blossoms.

Director Patrick Hughes (Expendables 3 – did we know there were 3?) relies heavily on his cast and their individual brands. It’s like shorthand. No reason for character development, which is a good thing because scribe Tom O’Connor isn’t strong.

Hughes has trouble balancing the action, humor and unexpected romance. Reynolds’s security expert pines for the Interpol agent that left him; meanwhile, Jackson’s assassin misses his Mrs. (Salma Hayak, funny).

But, hey, do you like Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson and Gary Oldman? Because the three of them play the three of them in a disposable action comedy coming out this weekend.

Verdict-2-5-Stars





Return of The King

Kong: Skull Island

by George Wolf

Time to grab the sunscreen and the softball glove…Kong: Skull Island will have you thinking it’s summer! The King’s latest return is fun and fast-paced eye cotton candy, a spectacle entirely satisfied with being less filling and more thrilling.

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts serves up the big ape early and often, while smart and talented writers effectively blend homage, humor, metaphor and bombast without ever committing the film too much in one direction.

Writers Nick Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly have resumes that include Nightcrawler, Jurassic World and the 2014 Godzilla. They may have a “B” movie on steroids, but they all know how to sneak in a dose or two of social commentary. This is about man’s inhumanity to nature, about how enemies sometimes “don’t exist until you look for them,” and about an island full of huge freakin’ monsters!

It is 1973, at the close of the Vietnam War, and scientist Bill Randa (John Goodman) feels it may be his last chance at getting government approval (and funds) to explore Skull Island, an uncharted mass in the South Pacific kept hidden by constant electrical storms and magnetic interference.  Of course, Randa has other motives for the mission that he’s not interested in sharing with Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who’s leading the military escort to the island, grizzled mercenary tracker James Conrad (ungrizzled Tom Hiddleston, a bit miscast), photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) or anyone else on the team.

First on the agenda is dropping explosives in hopes of mapping the island seismographically. Step two is throwing the rest of the agenda out the window and trying to stay alive because Kong don’t play that.

There are plenty other scary things on Skull Island, and even another pilot. Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) has been there since crash landing during WWII, and he’s armed with funny one liners and helpful survival tips for the tourists.

While Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) attacks the adventure with some familiar guns blazing, he peppers in enough small surprises to keep things interestingly off-kilter. It’s like he’s living a dream of combining Apocalypse Now with Godzilla, and he’s not leaving until he’s satisfied the scale is big enough.

It’s plenty big, and the CGI is often exhilarating, but smaller moments of nuance find a way in. The characters both embrace and deflect common stereotypes, so while Brie Larson does end up in a tight tank top, it’s Hiddleston that Vogt-Roberts’s camera is most interested in objectifying.

This is entertaining cheese that screams Memorial Day weekend, rising up before your St. Paddy’s bar crawl. The hangover will be minimal, and even the after-credits scene makes hanging around till closing time seem like a good idea.

Truth to Power

I Am Not Your Negro

by George Wolf

It may be driven by content decades old, but I Am Not Your Negro wastes no time in driving home its urgency.

As author James Baldwin tells Dick Cavett why he doesn’t view 1968 as a year of “progress for Negroes,” disturbing images of recent conflicts roll in succession, connecting the two eras with gut-wrenching irony.

Director Raoul Peck weaves notes from Baldwin’s unfinished 1979 novel Remember This House, along with interview and archival footage, to give new life to Baldwin’s assertion that the history of Negroes in American tells the story of America itself.

“It is not pretty.”

At its very core, the film is a  reminder of Baldwin’s intellect and clarity of thought. From page to interview to personal letter to public debate, Baldwin had an innate ability to communicate his ideas with laser focus and biting precision. And Peck (Sometimes in April) finds an effective balance between letting the historical Baldwin (who died in 1987) speak for himself, and entrusting a famous voice to speak for him.

Samuel L Jackson recites Baldwin’s prose, wisely trading the voice that is so recognizable for a hushed delivery that lends gravity to each carefully chosen word. There is a furious anger here, but Jackson’s trademark boom would have been both out of character and a needless distraction. In its place is a perfect tone of reverence and wisdom that commands attention as effectively as any of Jackson’s fiery movie monologues.

As Baldwin speaks of his own time, there’s no doubt he is also speaking directly to ours. It is no coincidence that the last twelve months have given us three of the most compelling documentaries on racial strife we have seen in years. 13th, OJ: Made in America and I Am Not Your Negro (all Oscar-nominated this year) are all worthy of any course in American history, each dissecting our deeply troubled times from unique perspectives.

If there is any point that shows the age of Baldwin’s original essays – and make no mistake, the depth of their relevance is often stunning – it is the lack of any substantial female perspective beyond that of suffering wives. Though the male-centric view is more understandable when considering Baldwin’s original book idea was based on the lives of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it remains noticeable.

But through Peck and Jackson, an unforgettable voice from the past becomes an indispensable storyteller for today. I Am Not Your Negro tells that story.

No, it is not pretty, but it demands to be seen.

Verdict-5-0-Stars