Review: Cold Pursuit (2019)

It would be nice to live in a world where a beat-by-beat remake of a relatively recent foreign film wasn’t seen as a viable pursuit – what a world it would be if people would simply go out and see the original. Though I can’t entirely blame them here, for I had never heard of the original until now (nor did I hear of this film until planning my weekly theater visit, but that’s another matter entirely).

Cold Pursuit follows Nelson Coxman (Liam Neeson) as he seeks out bloody revenge for the suspicious death of his son, soon finding himself caught up in a turf war between Trevor Calcote (Tom Bateman) and White Bull (Tom Jackson), two rival drug lords. Dozens of lackeys enter and exit the picture quicker than you can count, making small marks before violent deaths.

Cold Pursuit doesn’t feel extraneous purely due to its status as a remake – nearly every element is familiar. The film feels lifted straight from the 90s, echoing the darkly cynical humor of Tarantino and the Coen Brothers and their usual convoluted mess of characters. And while the snow drenched setting simply makes sense for a Norwegian film, the unfortunate fact is that moving this same narrative to America sets this movie up to be compared to the far better Fargo.

The element most miss while attempting to mimic Tarantino is that he carries a certain wit that justifies his violence; there’s a contrast between the mundanity of his conversations and the violence that soon follows. There’s no subtlety here – the villains are either total cartoons or bland stereotypes.

Trevor “Viking” Calcote is simply an awful villain, which makes a plot driven by revenge against him hard to invest in. His personality seems to consist of nothing but negative traits; he’s a controlling father, abusive, kills indiscriminately. There’s no attempt at humanization, laughable but not in the way most comedies are striving for. Tom Bateman goes completely over-the-top in the role – it feels as if the whole character was an attempt at some sort of meta-commentary on revenge flick villains, but he’s so laughable and surface-level that it doesn’t suggest anything but poor writing.

Liam Neeson does a passable job as Nels, but I never felt invested in his character arc. We know some facts of his life – recent “Citizen of the Year” recipient, snowplow driver, quiet life on the edge of a resort town. But his actual connections are underutilized – the son dies right at the beginning and his wife leaves soon after (Laura Dern serving in the wasted role). He’s the archetypal man with nothing to lose – and therefore nothing for us as an audience to care about.

The most intriguing element lacks the weight it needs. The seemingly endless henchmen get their own minor plots before being unceremoniously killed off, and if the movie just honed in more on a few, there could have been something there. Instead, everything is a cheap joke – a secret gay love affair here, a disgusting hotel habit there. Cold Pursuit has ideations of being an ensemble piece but every character is either flat or absurd.

Cold Pursuit wants to be a satire of the traditional Liam Neeson-style revenge flick, but its humor is too juvenile and its actual conflict too bare-bones to succeed. It’s a mess of violence without meaning – it almost seems to forget what the string of killing is about after a certain point. Revenge served cold does not imply burying it so far back in the freezer that even the audience forgets why it’s there.

2 Stars Out of 5

Review: The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (2019)

The original Lego Movie was a surprise success, mixing together a popular but plot-less brand of toys and several pop culture references to somehow create a film about creativity among conformity. It worked at a level above its initial premise – no one quite expected it to be as effective as it turned out.

A problem with sequels is that they are sometimes simply more of the same, which can be especially problematic in a franchise that started with a film about rebelling against the status quo. The Lego Movie had to prove itself in a world where toy-based properties are rightfully questioned – it’s important to draw the line between an artistic production and glorified advertising. Now that the franchise has secured its place, The Second Part appears happy to fall into a now-familiar groove.

The premise is fairly straightforward, with a few necessary twists and turns – the world of the first movie is met with cataclysm after the daughter of the human family is allowed access to the Legos. Emmet, voiced by Chris Pratt, must rescue his kidnapped friends from alien invaders. During his journey, he meets Rex Dangervest (also voiced by Chris Pratt), who teaches Emmet a few new ways to interact with the world beyond simply creating. Lucy (Elizabeth Banks), one of the kidnapped citizens, tries to fend off the invaders while watching her friends fall easily under their spell – the obviously evil Queen Watevra Wa-Nabi (Tiffany Haddish) is delightfully charming in how blatant her manipulations are. Where the first film had order, the second carries chaos.

Though the film is a bit too familiar, the style holds up well enough to make this a worthwhile viewing. Scenes have a smooth flow and it playfully jumps in and out of various visual styles. There’s always something to catch the eye, though rarely the mind. There are plenty of decent jokes to go around, but nothing coheres to make an overall memorable experience – this is more a collection of fun moments than a centralized narrative force.

There’s an issue with the movie feeling too on-the-nose, from its humor to the narrative structure. The pop culture references tend toward the obvious, such as Rex Dangervest’s backstory simply being an amalgamation of every other Chris Pratt role. This particular joke seems to exist largely to draw our attention to the fact that Rex shares a voice with the protagonist – which, again, is a detail treated a little too obviously. The film is also dotted with live action shots that keep reestablishing that, yes, this whole affair is representative of a brother and sister fighting over toys. The messages are simplistic; siblings should learn to understand each other, and also sometimes things aren’t awesome.

Despite its poor handling of some big picture matters, The Lego Movie 2 succeeds at its individual moments. Rex offers up a good foil, his cartoonish edginess playing against Emmet’s infallible optimism. The best the film has to offer comes largely through Queen Watevra, a playfully meta character that is also connected to most of the musical numbers. The music throughout is incredibly fun, from the obvious villain song “Not Evil” to the aptly titled “Catchy Song” and the necessary “Everything’s Not Awesome.”

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part is perhaps best compared to the over-produced pop songs it evokes – it’s designed to convey a certain light, accessible image, to be easily consumed by whoever comes in contact. These works don’t intrinsically lack value, but great art challenges to some capacity. The original film had the concept of originality to give it a necessary edge – the sequel doesn’t have a clear purpose beyond being a follow-up to a box office smash.

In the end, I kept finding myself comparing this film to another sequel starring Chris Pratt – much like the second Guardians of the Galaxy, this second Lego Movie simply feels like more of the same. The originals were both films I truly enjoyed and wanted to see more of, and I can be happy with what I ended up getting. But to make a great sequel, you can’t simply repeat but must also build upon the foundation – and of all franchises, shouldn’t Lego be aware of the need to build?

3 Stars Out of 5

Review: Green Book (2018)

Green Book is a film that immediately sparks the phrase ‘Oscar-bait,’ this concept that some films are created more for award ceremonies than critical appeal; the idea here being that the average moviegoer is more likely to check out a Best Picture nominee than a film that manages to land a high score on Metacritic. The negative quality of this label comes from the general attitude that technical elements can be ignored for more surface-level details – a narrative with ‘social significance’ and recognizable actors giving ‘meaningful’ performances. These films carry a certain air of manipulation, that they care more about what the subject matter can do for them than the other way around.

Yes, Green Book falls neatly into that category. This is a Hollywood take on the concept of an art film. The importance is on the label, the story of a working class white man driving a black musician through the Deep South in the early 1960s – and though they are wildly different people, they learn Important Life Lessons during their journey together. It’s the type of saccharine story about race that will earn nominations over more purposeful and heavy takes on the issue, such as the snubbed If Beale Street Could Talk.

But being Oscar-bait is a conceptual idea; films can rise above that label. For the story it’s choosing to tell, Green Book does fine work. As mentioned, this style of film-making puts emphasis on acting, and it’s much harder to fudge a good performance than it is to force a ‘meaningful’ narrative. Viggo Mortenson and Mahershala Ali are stellar playing against each other, Viggo’s loudmouth Tony in perfect contrast to Ali’s deliberate quiet as Don Shirley.

What pushes this above standard Oscar-bait territory is that it actually does excel in a particular technical category; the editing is surprisingly proficient. There’s nothing boundary-pushing, just a simple emphasis on timing; this film carries a certain comedic tone, and it has that necessary rhythm between shots. Nothing lingers more than it needs to, nor does a shot fade away too quickly – this is a film that earns its two-hour-plus running time by making every moment count.

The story is nice enough, though it naturally feels a bit forced. There are two major themes running throughout, and the one beneath the surface works a whole lot better. There are too many scenes that simply establish Don Shirley’s lack of connection with other black people. One flagrant example finds him standing outside the car after it break down, a field full of black workers staring at him in his fancy suit as a white man chauffeurs him. This element of the narrative is present throughout, so why feature such a deliberate moment?

What works better is when the film hones in on the concept of self-hood. Don Shirley is portrayed as a man lost in his individuality, performing for audiences that otherwise treat him as scum. His unique place in the world puts a barrier between him and others, a lonely man compelled to present that loneliness as an affectation. Tony Vallelonga, on the other hand, is happy to fall into the ways of his community, but he always sees through whatever stereotypes he might fit to see himself as his own being. But where this creates fun moments of conflict between the two, it also carries the heavy baggage of making this a film about a white man teaching a black man to lighten up a little.

Green Book is all-in-all a fine film, one that can’t hide its intentions but carries a high enough quality to make it worthwhile. It certainly has no place in the Best Picture race, and I think the sad fact is that it could have even been a great film if it cut down on some of the surface-level elements that likely earned it that nomination. It could have been great – but it’s still pretty good, which I can say is more than I expected when I went in.

3.5 Stars Out of 5

Review: The Kid Who Would Be King (2019)

A full eight years since the release of Attack the Block, Joe Cornish returns with his second feature film. A modernized tale of Arthurian legend, The Kid Who Would Be King is a fair but rudimentary family movie.

Though his two films target wildly different audiences, they share the common theme of youth facing off against evil forces without much outside help; one happens to feature aliens while the other has demonic knights. However, the kids here simply aren’t as compelling. Attack the Block was as much about troubled youth as it was an alien invasion, but this film is fine resting on the generic; poor parental relationships, the bullied, the bullies. The characters are largely conceptual – they go through obvious arcs and don’t perform much beyond their archetype.

Many of the plot beats feel equally forced, from the discovery of the sword to how the two bullies get tangled into the story. I couldn’t help but find those two characters out of place through most of the movie; they seem to be there just so the film can deliver a message. This is a story that wants to be about growing and learning to understand and care for others – but the characters succeed too easily.

The Kid Who Would Be King felt rushed during its first act, only to drag during its back half. Certain sequences from the beginning could have been milked for more; Alex too quickly falls into the hero role, and the film could have used more scenes with the young Merlin completely failing to hide among the student body. Simply establishing the characters more before sending them off on the quest could have done wonders.

And where it races through these promising concepts, it then slows during the rather mundane journey. So much of the film is just a group of kids travelling; by foot, by horseback, through knee-deep water. It carries the ambitions of an epic but fails to land the feeling of one; it could have really benefited from some tighter focus and a shorter length.

The film desperately wants to be whimsical, but the young actors simply aren’t able to deliver their lines to that effect. It’s easy to recognize the wit in the dialogue, but it’s rarely executed well. The one exception here is Angus Imrie, who goes completely ham while playing the out-of-touch young Merlin – he has enough energy to carry most of his scenes.

There’s something visceral about the creature design of Attack the Block; the aliens are these pitch-black masses, sometimes appearing as nothing more than floating teeth among shadows. The demonic knights here are cool enough, but not anything special. The visual design in general feels rather lackluster; though there are plenty of moments in the British countryside, it’s never shot in a particularly compelling way – the framing always feels rather utilitarian.

The Kid Who Would Be King simply doesn’t do enough. I get the sense that the creators wanted to pull back a bit, keep it simpler for a younger audience, but it goes too far. Attack the Block sold itself largely on style, but this film doesn’t capture anywhere near that charm. It doesn’t seem to be offering anything more than a simple quest.

2.5 Stars Out of 5

Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a Western anthology film directed by the Coen Brothers, telling six distinct stories of varying moods and styles that add up to a sweeping view of the Wild West.

Each vignette fits neatly into a certain Coen style. The first, which shares its name with the film, follows a psychotic yet cheerful outlaw, breaking the fourth wall and acting all too jovial as he provokes other gunslingers. Buster Scruggs has the violent tendencies of Anton Chigurh paired with the oddly light styling of a Raising Arizona character. This rather disparate character is followed by tales of ironic punishment, desperation, and other ideas familiar to anyone who has watched a Coen Brothers film.

If you wanted to quickly summarize the Coen Brothers style, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs would be the perfect showcase.

The question, then, is how well these short vignettes hold up compared to full-length Coen Brothers films. I find they all tend to land in the middle tier, perfectly capturing their black humor and bleak sense of humanity, but never quite saying much outside of itself – they have a tendency toward shaggy dog stories that can get a bit much when six play back to back. If you like the Coen Brothers, you’re probably going to like this film – I just doubt it will be anyone’s favorite.

What it certainly has going for it is the visual style. The initial segment with Buster Scruggs sets the mood; his plain white outfit suggests he’s stepped out of some modern dinner show instead of the actual Wild West. He offers up some bizarre musical numbers, all between violently dispatching suitably gruff men. Tim Blake Nelson is wonderful in the role, and the surreal nature of this vignette helps open up the possibilities of what follows.

The other vignettes are suitably stylized – it feels as if the film is trying to cover the entire ground of Western cinema in one quick swoop. Meal Ticket mixes the gaudy aesthetics of a circus side show with elevated speeches and haunting stops between acts – Harry Melling gives a mesmerizing performance as the Shakespeare-reciting man with no limbs. The Mortal Remains offers up a ride in a stage coach through an increasingly bleak landscape as its travelers tear each other down.

All Gold Canyon and The Gal Who Got Rattled take a more naturalistic approach. Tom Waits carries a quiet sequence as a prospector in a valley, searching for a “Mr. Pocket” that will make his journey worthwhile. He’s cast alone against this beautiful valley. Meanwhile, The Gal Who Got Rattled follows a woman as she joins a caravan across the prairie. Both sequences seem to find wonder in natural landscapes.

None of these narratives could sustain themselves for too long; the way they mix together is key. One small problem I have is pacing – The Ballad of Buster Scruggs kicks off with what I believe are its two shortest (and lightest) vignettes, causing those that follow to feel longer than they are. There’s a consistent level of quality among the six pieces, but I wish Near Algodones could have been used to break up the rather dense segments that follow. It’s too light to appreciate as much near the opening, but I feel like it would have been a welcome break between All Gold Canyon and The Gal Who Got Rattled.

There’s not much more to say without diving too deep into individual segments. It will make you laugh, make you wince in horror, sometimes with the same action. This is classically Coen, in bite-sized pieces. Their style is seamless for short-form narratives, little ironic moral tales that pack a punch. I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing them attempt another film with the same structure, so the film must have been a success. Yet I find myself looking back and wanting more – but would it be a Coen Brothers film without that lingering feeling?

4 Stars Out of 5