Action

Stuber

First Hit: Poorly conceived and acted, there were some funny moments, but that’s all.

The concept could have been good. Policeman hires an UBER driver and car to help him solve a significant crime.

The opening sequence attempts to establish that Detective Victor “Vic” Manning (Dave Bautista) and Detective Sarah Morris (Karen Gillan) are ready to capture Oka Teijo (Iko Uwais) a ruthless cop killer and drug trafficker. Entering a large downtown LA hotel, they go up to Oka’s room to make an arrest and are met by Oka’s bodyguards. Fisticuffs and gun battle ensue between Sarah, Vic, Oka and his men.

This opening scene struck me an unrealistic because there wasn’t any backup police and because Sarah and Vic were wearing bulletproof vests with “Police” imprinted signage, this appears to have been a planned raid and should have had a backup.

The impressive battle moves from the hotel room to the lobby, to the street and the firing of pistols by the police in crowded public areas was probably not realistic. Then Sarah gets killed by Oka and Vic is devastated.

Then we meet Stu (Kumail Nanjiani) who works at a goods store and to make extra money he drives for UBER. His longtime friend Becca (Betty Gilpin) and he are working together to open a women’s only cycling exercise studio called “Spinsters.” It’s evident that Stu has more than just friendship on his mind with Becca.

The story moves six months into the future and Vic is getting Lasik surgery, where he is told that he’ll have a hard time seeing for a few days and he’s not to drive a car. This is the set up for him to hire an UBER to get around. His daughter Nicole (Natalie Morales) sets it up on his phone so that he can get to an Art Opening featuring her sculptures. On the afternoon of his daughter Nicole’s opening, he gets a call from an informant that Oka is going to be getting a new shipment of drugs and he can nail him.

Scrambling to his car, he tries to drive, but the car ends up in a construction hole. He calls an UBER, and this is where Stu and Vic meet up.

They are opposite types of people. Vic is brutish, pushy, and very aggressive in his behavior. Stu is focused on pleasing people, he wants 5 Star reviews, and is very accommodating. He’s also unassertive and is unable to tell Becca what he wants out of their relationship and hopes to just sneak into her life somehow.

From here the Stu and Vic spend their time together pursuing the whereabouts of Oka so that Vic and get his revenge.

Added to this story is that Vic’s boss Captain Angie McHenry (Mira Sorvino) is not one of the good guys and hinders Vic’s capturing the terrorist Oka.

As one might expect from sticking two very different types of personalities together, there are out loud funny moments during their escapades. Although predictable, the ending scene when Vic shows up at his daughter’s house for Christmas was sweet. Also, using the reference to the UBER pool feature as an issue in their chase was cute.

I thought the fight scene in the sporting goods store to be of little value to the film. The hot sauce warehouse scene almost as bad.

Nanjiani’s acting was overwrought and overdone. There was a constant smirk on his face, which made this film seem like it was a joke for him as well. Bautista was overzealous in his brutishness towards Stu. The well-worn trick of not using Stu’s correct name (kept calling him “Steve”) as a way to demean him, lacked punch or relevance. Sorvino’s role as the crooked cop was uninspired and had no background to make it realistic. Morales was a bright spot in the film as her even-keeled approach made her role work. Gilpin as Stu’s love interest was good as well. She was able to make me believe her. Uwais was okay as the uncaring, ruthless drug dealer and cop killer. Tripper Clancy wrote this script and its failings as a cohesive story showed up in multiple places. There was little need to have the manager of the sporting goods store change from jerk to longing for a friendship with Stu during the fight scene in the store. There are many such scenes in this film. Michael Dowse directed this with little concept of how to put together these scenes into a story that is believable, funny, and interesting. It didn’t engage well.

Overall: Stuber was stupid.

Anna

First Hit: I was surprised that I liked and enjoyed this film as much as I did.

The film starts with a bunch of assassinations by the KGB of what appears to be CIA agents, all at the same time, in Russia. We’re given little context to these opening scenes, and have to trust that the story will make sense in the end.

Then, we are introduced to Anna (Sasha Luss), a mistreated Russian young woman, who is abused at the hands of her live-in boyfriend Vlad (Nikita Pavlenko). Vlad is a scamming bum who spends his time drinking, thieving and blaming Anna for their miserable life. Walking home one evening Vlad, driving a Mercedes, picks Anna up and drives to an ATM. Vlad opens the trunk, yanks out an old man, and uses his AMEX card and pin to try and extract money from the prisoner’s bank account. Just as they are doing this the police drive by and soon there is a shootout and a car chase.

Lucky to escape the chase, Anna and Vlad arrive home to be greeted by an agent of the KGB. The agent, Alex Tchenkov (Luke Evans), is not interested in discussing anything with Vlad, shoots him as a matter of fact, and begins speaking with Anna. He knows a lot about her; that her parents died when she was young and that she’s smart and appears to have a real will to survive. Alex offers her an opportunity to be free of all this, become a KGB agent, and in five years be free of everything, even the agency.

This is the setup.

However, when Anna' meets his boss, Olga (Helen Mirren), it’s clear that Anna must impress Olga because Olga is not impressed with her background. Quick thinking and acting under pressure are critical in the agency, and in this brief interview, Anna does this by reciting quotes by famous Russian authors.

Before you know it, Anna, Olga, and Alex are in front of the head of the KGB Vassiliev (Eric Gordon) who makes it quite clear that being part of the KGB is for life. And this hits a negative tone for Anna’s primary goal in life — freedom.

She’s been controlled and managed her whole life by her parents, the state, her boyfriend, and now the KGB. As an audience member, I hoped that her freedom was where the film would lead.

How the story is told to the moviegoer, is through numerous flashbacks and flashforwards. The audience has to soon learn that each scene may not be as it appears at first, that a flashback may subsequently give more information. An example was the scene when Anna is recruited as a model.

This form of filmmaking sometimes works, and other times becomes a distraction. Here director Luc Besson almost misses the mark as it is a slight distraction early on, but then becomes the primary vehicle for understanding the choices Anna is making along the way.

These choices include being a model, KGB agent, being a lesbian, and being recruited as a CIA agent by Lenny Miller (Cillian Murphy). Miller explains, at one point, that the loss of the agents at the beginning of the film was his responsibility and he wants to right this wrong, and she can help him. Does she become a CIA agent, a double agent, where is Anna’s allegiance, or does she just disappear?

The jobs Anna is sent on by Olga are numerous and horrifying. The first assassination job teaches her to check her equipment and be ready for anything – it’s quite a battle, one single woman agent against 15 – 20 thugs. The choreography of this scene was excellent as it was easy to follow and worked.

Anyway, the film was filled with action, risks, and questions about who is Anna, and what does she want?

Luss is excellent as Anna. Her look and physical movement work for this role as a model and also being entirely in control of her body. Murphy was strong as the CIA agent wanting to make amends for losing a bunch of agents. Mirren was exquisite as Anna’s boss at the KGB. Her disapproving looks and vocal tone exemplified what we might picture as a high-level woman KGB agent. Evans was equally strong as Anna’s recruiting agent. Gordon was perfect as the head of the KGB, cold and calculating. Lera Abova, as Anna’s roommate Maud, was very good as a model, friend and Anna’s lesbian lover. Besson wrote an engaging script which, at times, bordered on losing control and engagingly entertaining. As a director, it was obvious what he wanted in the end, and I think he got it.

Overall: I was glad I saw this film because each flashback gave new context to the story.

Men in Black: International

First Hit: Certainly not as good as the original, but at least we’ve got “women” involved.

I never thought of the “Men in Black” as a domestic only group, but I guess I was wrong. I mean, how could aliens be on earth and only lived in the United States? So for me, the premise in the title was weak.

We begin with young Molly (Mandeiya Flory) looking out her window witnessing her parents being neuralysed by Men in Black (MiB) agents because of a commotion in the house. The uproar came from a young alien the agents were tracking, and Molly thinks it’s cute, so she helps the alien escape, but not before learning a word from the alien. You know that this will mean something later in the film.

We jump some twenty years into the future and Molly (Tessa Thompson) is still focused on becoming a MiB agent to work with aliens because she likes the alien she met and saw what happened to her parents after they were neuralysed. We are meant to believe that the single early childhood event has become her singular whole life focus.

Attempting to find where MiB headquarters is located in NYC, Molly sets up computers to track incoming aliens. Finding a MiB encounter, she follows the agents back to their offices. Slipping into the building, she gets caught and quickly tells them, she wants to become an agent carrying a neuralyser. After extensive interviews, she’s given a chance to prove herself as a probationary Agent M.

Her assignment takes her to London (hence the International in the title), where she meets High T (Liam Neeson) who assigns her to work with Agent H (Chris Hemsworth).

Agent H is shown in several scenes to be a play-boyish rogue of sorts, loving to gamble, and drink taboo elixirs. Agents H and M are assigned to meet Vungus, the Ugly of royal alien family heritage. But during this meeting, Vungus is killed by evil twins who can manifest themselves as pure energy.

Because Vungus gives M a secret weapon before he dies, she and H are being tracked by the twins who want this weapon to destroy Earth. Will M and H save the world?

This is the short version of the plot. There are other aliens in the mix as well as a storyline that High T has been protecting H since their encounter with the Hive who tried to destroy Earth many years earlier.

What didn’t work for me was that the plot felt too manufactured to be engaging. It lacked a flow to it, and therefore, it pulled me out of engaging with the story. I’m not sure why the writers needed the character of Riza as the recipient of the weapon. Yes, she was an arms agent, but it seemed like it was created as yet another plot device and character. Additionally, some of the acting (Neeson in particular) felt stiff and done for the money and not for the story. Many of the visuals were fun, like when M and H test the weapon Vungus gave M. The twins when they changed to pure energy was fun to watch.

Tessa Thompson was engaging and fun to watch. Her character made the story work. Hemsworth was a bit too silly and laissez-faire for the critical role as protector of the Earth from aliens. The part was built this way, and I thought he could have toned down some of the silliness. Neeson appeared too disengaged from the story and role. The heavy makeup and powder, as seen in the closeups, didn’t help. Rafe Spall as Agent C was very good as the one who wanted to be seen as having more power and engagement in the London MiB office. Emma Thompson as Agent O was good as the authoritarian in-charge person. Rebecca Ferguson (as Riza) was attractive in a role I didn’t think was needed. Matt Holloway and Art Marcum wrote the screenplay that seemed too manufactured as a way to use the MiB name. F. Gary Gray directed this film.

Overall: Not sure this film added any greatness or enhancement to the MiB franchise.

Shaft

First Hit: Simply, this is Samuel L. Jackson’s film through and through.

It’s hard to take this film seriously, and it is seriously fun to watch. Jackson, as John Shaft, is still the king of the neighborhood, has a stern attitude, and rollicks through this story taking full ownership.

This story begins when he and his wife Maya Babanikos (Regina Hall) are arguing in their car. JJ Shaft (Jessie T. Usher), their baby, is in the back seat. As usual, where Shaft is, there is trouble, and a shootout will more than likely commence.

Maya has had enough and, with JJ in tow, leaves Shaft and tells him to stay away forever. The film rolls through the years quickly, with funny vignettes showing the birthday presents Shaft sends JJ (box of rubbers on JJ’s 10th).

In current time JJ is now an FBI data analyst, and he stumbles on to a possible crime because his best friend, Karim Hassan (Avan Jogia) dies of what the police say is an overdose.

At work, he doesn’t get assigned to the FBI probe into the local mosque, although he’s an outstanding analyst, and he thinks Karin was involved in the mosque’s activities.

He locates and waltzes into his dad’s office, looking for some help in finding what really went on in Hassan’s death. Meeting for the first time in twenty plus years, the reunion is filled with John Shaft ego and bragging moments and advice that is contrary to JJ’s beliefs. This is the moment when the audience knows we’re going on a Samuel L. Jackson E-Ticket (for those who remember Disneyland long ago) wild ride.

Going to visit Manny (Ian Casselberry) the local Bronx heroin dealer, they run roughshod, over his group of thugs. And here is where JJ starts to re-think that his passiveness and begins to see some value in his dad’s way of resolving problems.

Some of the amusing parts of the film include JJ’s attempts to share his romantic interest for his longtime friend Sasha Arias (Alexandra Shipp). When John Shaft first meets Sasha, when she pulls a gun out of her purse at a restaurant, and how she dreamily looks at JJ when he jumps into action during a dinner they have.

The story goes on, and eventually, we get introduced to John Shaft Sr. (Richard Roundtree), and this completes the cycle. The original Shaft, the current Shaft, and the upcoming Shaft.

Don’t go to this film if you are looking to watch a serious movie. This film is tongue-in-cheek, and it’s fun.

Jackson is this film. He’s the reason you laugh and are engaged in the story because you wonder what he’ll do next. Hall is excellent as Shaft’s estranged wife. Her quips about Shaft’s focus are hilarious. Usher is wonderful as the passive smart FBI agent who finds his roots through meeting his father. Shipp is excellent as JJ’s friend and later girlfriend. Her shift in attitude towards Shaft’s lifestyle was subtle and fun. Roundtree was great to see, and as a reminder of the original song and film, I smiled. Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow wrote an entertaining active script. Tim Story knew that he needed to let Jackson run roughshod over this film because Samuel will make it work, he always does.

Overall: If you’re looking for action entertainment and don’t mind a lot of swearing, this is a film for you.

John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum

First Hit: Entertaining, full of unbelievable action, and an excellent setup for Chapter 4.

One can only enter the theater knowing you're going to see lots of shooting, hand to hand combat and knife fighting. This film doesn’t fail at delivering this.

When we last saw Mr. Wick (Keanu Reeves) in Chapter 2, John had broken the rules of the Continental Hotel and Winston (Ian McShane), proprietor, was ready to put out a contract on Wick’s life.

This is where Chapter 3 opens. John is running through New York City, looking for a place to hide from the assassins that are ready to kill him for the $14M that is being offered for his extermination.

There is a countdown, and when the 6:00 PM execution time happens, the world seems to be after Wick. In this world, assassins are everywhere. Yes, I only gave glancing thought to this real-world possibility because this is an unreal world story, and even your neighbor is an assassin.

The ludicrousness of many of the fights Wick gets into and wins was out loud laughable (which I and others did) but no less engaging. Yes, some of the choreography was a little stiff with people hesitating for the next lunge, thrust or throw but it was delightful.

That, for me, is the point of this series of films. It is full of entertainment, has little basis in reality and is not presented to make a point. These films make Wick a voice of a man who was drawn back into the violent life, he left for a woman and subsequently a dog (“it’s not just a puppy.”) and now is fighting for his survival.

All the scenes are shot in dark tones, there are few daylight scenes. This aside, I liked many of the sets, from Bowery King’s (Laurence Fishburne) building basement and pigeon coops to the elegance of the Continental Hotel, and all are sets in darkened tones.

Reeves was fun to watch, but as I watched him run, especially at the beginning of the film, I found his running labored and slightly awkward. However, his quips along the way were great, and he only continues to develop and mine this character for pure entertainment. Halle Berry, as Sofia, was fun as the person who owed Wick a favor. Her dogs were a fun part of her scenes. McShane was perfect as the Continental’s proprietor. His role was expanded for this film and will be an integral part of the next. Fishbourne as the elegant Bowery King was memorable. His presence is critical here and will be in the next chapter. Mark Dacascos as Zero, the assassin the High Table uses as the principle assassin to take down Wick, was excellent. Asia Kate Dillon as the High Table’s Adjudicator was good. There wasn’t enough background of her to give me the impression she held all the cards she projected she held. This meant she had to build credibility in this role with her actions, dialogue, and screen presence, and she pulled it off. There’s an authority in her look that makes this role work. Lance Reddick (as Charon, the hotel’s desk man) expanded his previous role to become an excellent protector of the hotel, Winston, and Wick. Derek Kolstad and Shay Hatten wrote an action-oriented script that brought out more of the principal characters. Chad Stahelski directed this film in a way that kept the story and feel of the past films while propelling it into the future.

Overall: This film is a world of its own, and it works as entertainment.