Movie Review: “Good Kill”

Starring
Ethan Hawke, January Jones, Bruce Greenwood, Zoe Kravitz
Director
Andrew Niccol

Andrew Niccol’s filmography as of late has been nothing short of disappointing. The writer/director once showed promise as one of cinema’s next great visionaries with his directorial debut, “Gattaca.” Since then, his career has had its ups and downs. “Lord of War” was a bold look into the world of arms dealing, but he followed up that excellent dark comedy with “The Host” and “In Time,” two all-around lackluster studio pictures. They’re safe movies, missing Niccol’s personality and eye for moral ambiguity. With “Good Kill,” Niccol returns to his roots with a movie that exists firmly in the grey.

Air Force pilot Tom Egan (Ethan Hawke) is no longer fighting wars in the sky. Now operating as a drone pilot, he attacks from a box in Las Vegas, Nevada, far away from any serious danger. As a man who served six tours of duty in the sky, this doesn’t sit well with Tom, because even though he gets to spend more time with his wife Molly (January Jones) and their kids, he feels like a coward for having to fight like he’s playing a video game. At the start of the film, Tom is in bad shape, but once he and his fellow drone pilots, including Vera Suaraz (Zoe Kravitz), start taking questionable orders from the CIA, his job and life crumbles.

A soldier haunted by what he’s seen has been well covered on film by this point. Tom Egan isn’t exactly a new or fresh character, but drone warfare is a new world, and it’s one that Niccol fully dives into, leaving no morally complex stone unturned. The writer/director shows all facets of drone warfare – both pros and cons – and the film highlights a variety of perspectives, not only Tom’s. This isn’t an anti-war picture, it’s an honest war picture.

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Blu Tuesday: Still Alice, Blackhat and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“Still Alice”

WHAT: Renowned linguistics professor Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is a happily married mother of three grown children who has begun to experience problems with her memory. When she’s diagnosed with Early-Onset Alzheimer’s disease, Alice’s relationships with her family are tested as she struggles to maintain a normal life despite the worsening symptoms.

WHY: “Still Alice” is an emotionally devastating, soul-crushing movie that is bound to end in tears for anyone watching it, which makes the decision to release it on home video the week of Mother’s Day especially cruel. With that said, writers/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (the former of whom recently died from his own battle with a terrible disease, ALS) do a good job of portraying the illness and the effect it has on the people around those afflicted without cheapening its real-world impact or pandering to the audience. The story also smartly avoids getting too deep into Alice’s illness too soon, allowing you to witness Alice in her natural habitat as a wife, mother and teacher, thus making her mental deterioration that much more traumatic. Based on Lisa Genova’s 2007 bestselling novel of the same name, the film is such a well-acted drama that it deserves every accolade it received during last year’s awards season. It wouldn’t be as effective without Julianne Moore in the lead role, however, and she delivers a career-best performance as the intelligent and independent matriarch forced to suffer her worst nightmare. Alec Baldwin and Kristen Stewart are also solid in supporting roles, but this is Moore’s movie from start to finish, and she commands the screen with such brutal honesty that it was never a question of if she’d win the Oscar, but why it took so long.

EXTRAS: In addition to a discussion among the cast, crew and Alzheimer’s experts about creating an accurate depiction of Alice’s disease, there’s a profile on directors Richard Glazer and Wash Westmoreland, an interview with composer Ilan Eshkeri and a few deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Blackhat”

WHAT: After a cyberterrorist causes a meltdown at a nuclear reactor in China and makes millions on the stock market by driving up the price of soy, FBI agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) makes a deal with imprisoned hacker Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) to expunge his record in exchange for his help in stopping the malicious blackhat before the next attack.

WHY: Over the past decade, Michael Mann has come to care more about the look of his films than what they’re trying to say, and that hasn’t changed with “Blackhat.” To be fair, when the camera isn’t shaking around like it’s in the middle of an earthquake, the movie boasts some really gorgeous visuals. It’s just a shame that the story hasn’t been given the same attention. Mann tries to counteract the implausibility of Morgan Davis Foehl’s script by instilling a sense of danger with real stakes, but there’s too much working against it, including a faceless villain who isn’t very threatening and a needlessly convoluted plot that fails to validate the sluggish, 135-minute runtime. Chris Hemsworth does the best he can with such a dull, underdeveloped character (wasting his charismatic presence in the process), although Chinese actors Leehom Wang and Wei Tang fare much better in supporting roles. Perhaps the most annoying thing about “Blackhat,” however, is that it constantly brings up 9/11 as a measure of the level of terror that the hacker is capable of launching against the world, and yet the film never even considers going in that direction. This could have been a very timely thriller about cyber-terrorism, but instead, it’s just another style-over-substance misfire from Mann.

EXTRAS: There’s a trio of featurettes on the film’s production, shooting on location and the real-world threat of cyber-terrorism.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

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Movie Review: “Hot Pursuit”

Starring
Reese Witherspoon, Sofia Vergara, Robert Kazinsky, John Carroll Lynch
Director
Anne Fletcher

“Hot Pursuit” is bad. Like, really bad; the kind of movie where the blooper reel attached to the end credits is funnier than the film itself. Not that outshining Anne Fletcher’s action-comedy was particularly difficult to do, but at least it looks like Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara had fun making the movie. Unfortunately, sitting through it isn’t quite as pleasurable, akin to listening to fingernails on a chalkboard for 90 minutes while the two actresses yell at each other like a couple of high-strung Chihuahuas. Women in Hollywood may be desperate to prove that they can be funny too, but “Hot Pursuit” is so painfully dull, mind-numbingly stupid and just plain lazy that it doesn’t exactly help their cause.

Witherspoon stars as Officer Rose Cooper, the daughter of a well-respected cop who followed in her dad’s footsteps. But unlike him, Cooper is totally inept, recently demoted to the evidence locker after a now-infamous incident where she accidentally lit the mayor’s son on fire. When her precinct teams up with the U.S. Marshals Service to transport an important witness to Dallas ahead of his testimony against notorious cartel boss Vincent Cortez (Joaquín Cosio), Cooper is brought along as the police-mandated female escort for his wife, Danielle Riva (Vergara). But after her husband is killed by intruders, Cooper must protect Mrs. Riva from crooked cops and cartel hitmen looking to finish the job so that she can testify against Cortez the next day, even if Cooper has to drag the spoiled and unwilling witness there all by herself.

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Movie Review: “The D Train”

Starring
Jack Black, James Marsden, Kathryn Hahn, Jeffrey Tambor, Russell Posner
Directors
Andrew Mogul & Jarrad Paul

If you followed the news coming out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, then you know that it was a very busy year for acquisitions, including Andrew Mogul and Jarrad Paul’s directorial debut, “The D Train.” Of course, not every movie that gets purchased at Sundance is a surefire hit, and based on the tepid reaction that the film received from attendees, it makes you question why IFC would spend a cool $3 million for the distribution rights. Though it boasts a pair of bankable stars in Jack Black and James Marsden, and features a surprising twist that’s better left unspoiled, this dark comedy about how far someone is willing to go to become popular falls disappointingly flat.

Black stars as Dan Landsman, a schlubby loser who works for an antiquated consulting firm in Pittsburgh and serves as the chairman of his high school’s alumni committee. After seeing popular classmate Oliver Lawless (Marsden) in a Banana Boat sunscreen commercial on TV one night, Dan devises a plan to fly out to Los Angeles and convince Oliver to make an appearance at their upcoming 20-year reunion in the hope that it’ll get more people to attend and earn him the respect of his peers. Dan doesn’t have any trouble tracking Oliver down, but when a wild night of partying takes an unexpected turn (hint: it gives the term “bromance” a whole other meaning), he becomes strangely infatuated with the struggling actor, leading to much bigger problems in his personal and professional life.

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Movie Review: “Maggie”

Starring
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, Joely Richardson, Aiden Flowers
Director
Henry Hobson

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return to the big screen hasn’t been as triumphant as it should’ve been. In addition to the abominable David Ayer picture, “Sabotage,” the former California governor has appeared in a number of disappointing efforts, including his charismatic cameos in the consistently underwhelming “Expendables” franchise. But for the first time in a long time, not only does Schwarzenegger star in a film worthy of his name, but one that’s way out of his comfort zone, lending considerable emotional depth to the deadly serious zombie drama, “Maggie.”

A few months after the necroambulist virus struck the nation, the rate of infection is beginning to dwindle. Day by day, there are less infected roaming the streets. In no way is the country returning to normal, though, with many families and loved ones still being torn apart by the disease. Wade Vogel (Schwarzenegger) is a Midwest father of three. His oldest daughter from a previous marriage, Maggie (Abigail Breslin), escapes from home after becoming infected with the virus in fear of harming her family. This doesn’t stop Wade from searching for his daughter, and once she’s found, Maggie is brought home. But she only has a few weeks left to live, and it’s up to Wade whether to have her quarantined or kill her himself before she “turns.”

That’s about as much plot as there is in director Henry Hobson’s film. Don’t expect Arnold to fight off zombies or search for the cure to his daughter’s illness. “Maggie” is driven far more by character than story. It’s a quiet, slow burn – albeit a little too slow at times. Even with a 95-minute running time, writer John Scott 3’s screenplay is pretty thin, and although that’s acceptable because it’s not the film’s priority, even for what it is, “Maggie” could have used a few trims and some tightening up.

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