|Films I Neglected To Review: Cable Guys And Chopping Blocs
|by Peter Sobczynski
Please enjoy short reviews of "The Highwaymen," "The Hummingbird Project," "Triple Threat" and "Woman at War."
When you first saw the groundbreaking 1967 classic ''Bonnie and Clyde''--I am just going to assume that you are familiar with it--did you come out of it thinking to yourself ''Man, I just wish that film had spent a lot more time with the guys who gunned them down at the end''? If so, the ''The Highwaymen'' is a movie made for your heart. It tells the story of Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), two former Texas Rangers who are pulled out of retirement to bring down Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, whose multi-state crime spree has left numerous dead bodies in their wake while elevating them to the status of Depression-era folk heroes. This clearly cannot stand but to pull this off, the two have to fight not only the federal and local lawmen who prefer modern methods of crime solving over their tried-and-true tricks but their own conflicting attitudes towards the law--while Hamer is perfectly willing to do whatever is necessary to get the job done while still managing to sleep easy, Gault is a little more restrained and is also haunted by some of the things he has been forced to do in the past in order to get the job done.
One of the many reasons why ''Bonnie and Clyde'' struck such a nerve when it came out a half-century ago was because of the way it kicked so many screen conventions to the curb and jump-started the American film industry towards bringing a much-needed dose of reality to the big screen. ''The Highwaymen,'' on the other had, is so relentlessly old-fashioned that it oftentimes feels like just the kind of pokey and overly earnest melodrama that ''Bonnie and Clyde'' tried to wipe out for good back in the day. One of the key problems with the film is that virtually everyone sitting down to watch it knows how it is all going to turn out and what is different here--the details of the Hamer and Gault investigation as they track the fugitives down while battling red tape and their own pasts--is just not presented here in an especially compelling manner through John Fusco's screenplay. The lackluster direction by John Lee Hancock doesn't help matters either--although certainly a handsomely mounted production, it just drags on too long for its own good and his attempts to correct the public scales regarding Bonnie and Clyde (for most of the time, he only shows them from a distance and generally only while putting bullets into the heads of cops) are so overdone that they stand out for all the wrong reasons. The best things about the film, not surprisingly, are the performances by Costner and Harrelson but even they are clearly going through the motions here. (Harrelson gets stuck with one late-inning monologue that is so lumpily written that it practically drags the film to a halt just as it should be picking up speed. To compare ''The Highwaymen'' to ''Bonnie and Clyde'' would be patently unfair--it obviously comes up far short but there are precious few films out there that could stand up to such a comparison. However,,even when judging it entirely on its own merits and without comparing it to any other film of note, it still comes up pretty short.
With a story involving high-level technology and old-fashioned greed, ''The Hummingbird Project'' is a film that clearly aches to be seen as a sort of successor to the likes of ''The Wolf of Wall Street,'' ''The Big Short'' and ''The Social Network''--it even features the star of the latter title, Jesse Eisenberg, as its lead as a way of presumably helping to subliminally sell that connection. And yet, while I found those earlier films to be among the very best and most compelling works of their respective years, I emerged from writer-director Kim Nguyen’s effort struggling to understand why this story needed to be told or why anyone should care at all about any of it. Set in 2012, Eisenberg plays Vinny Zaleski, a Wall Street tech guy who sells a trading firm on a genius idea for laying a fiber-optic cable in a perfectly straight line from Kansas to New Jersey in order to get stock market information a millisecond earlier than the competition and thereby be able to strike first and make millions in the process thanks to this seemingly minuscule advantage. To put this plan into motion, Vinny employs his computer genius cousin Anton (a virtually unrecognizable Alexander Skarsgard) to ensure that the line will have that all-important millisecond advantage and hires numerous crews to acquire the necessary land rights and do the drilling, regardless of what physical complications are in the way. Speaking of complications, the Zaleskis's former boss, Eva Torres (Salma Hayek), is none too happy to lose two of her best employees and when she realizes what they are up to, she schemes to hinder their progress just long enough to get her own system up and running first.
You might think that the sight of a couple of guys navigating various bureaucracies in order to drill a very thin tunnel for thousands of miles may not be an especially compelling hook for a film and, based on the evidence presented here, you would be right. The problem is that Nguyen never manages to find a way into the story to make it work in narrative terms. Oh, there are some attempts at drama--Anton runs the risk of prosecution for utilizing pieces of code that he devised when he was working for Eva while Vinny is diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and elects to press on with his project rather than undergo treatment or even inform anyone--but they don't add up to anything in the end. The cancer subplot comes across as especially baffling since we are never given a reason to understand why Vinny would essentially sacrifice his life for a vision that even he recognizes will be technologically obsolete within a few years. Even as a collection of individual scenes, the screenplay is a mess that combines limp satire, painfully bald-faced exposition (the worst being a scene fairly late in the game when Anton inexplicably explains the entire scheme to a barroom waitress that exists only to make sure that viewers are all caught up) and moments of incredibly awkward earnestness. (The film even goes so far as to truck in some random Amish in order to compare their nobility to Vinny's naked greed.) Eisenberg and Skarsgard can both be compelling actors when working with the right material but neither one finds a way to connect with their characters here while Hayek's over-the-top turn leans almost embarrassingly towards caricature. ''The Hummingbird Project'' is essentially a film about obsession and if it had demonstrated even a silver of that for itself, it might have helped it avoid become the self-important bore that it is.
For fans of contemporary direct-to-video action cinema, especially of the martial arts variety, a film like ''Triple Threat,'' which brings together such current Asian fight film icons as Tony Jaa, Iko Uwais and Tiger Hu Chen, will probably have them salivating with anticipation in the way that 80s action buffs did when they heard about ''The Expendables'' for the first time. It is a pity then that such a collaboration would result in the kind of lazy programmer that one might have found at the bottom of a triple bill at the long-gone McVickers Theatre during its grindhouse heyday. Set in Thailand, Jaa and Chen play Payu and Fei a couple of scouts hired to lead a group of mercenaries led by American Deveraux (Michael Jai White) to a hidden MI6 prison in the jungle on what they have been led to believe is a humanitarian mission. Fat chance--Devereaux is there to bust out super-terrorist Collins (Scott Adkins) and kill anyone who gets in the way, including the wife of worker Jaka (Uwais). It turns out than Collins has been sprung so that he and his crew can assassinate Xian (Celina Jade), a Chinese heiress who is about to institute a plan to defeat the criminal element via charitable donations. Having survived the ambush, Payu and Fei return to the city and are accosted by Jaka, who holds them responsible for the death of his wife but before they can do any serious damage to each other, they get caught up in the middle of the assassination attempt and band together to protect Xian and defeat their common enemy.
As anyone who has seen more than a few martial arts movies over the years can attest, it is a genre that is not exactly known for emphasizing narrative--the usual storyline tends to consist of a few moments of exposition designed to sort-of link together the various action beats and nothing more. Bizarrely, ''Triple Threat'' elects to upend this typical approach with a storyline that jumps out of the bat with so many poorly explained characters and plot threads that by the time things settle down and the main narrative kicks in, most viewers will still be struggling to catch up, especially since it seems as if every character with more than a couple of minutes of screen time requires a load of backstory. After that, it bogs down into a series of increasingly repetitive scenes in which the bad guys go on and on about how powerful and superior they are (based on this, one has to assume that their spirit animal is Wile E. Coyote) only to them demonstrate the kind of ground-level incompetence that one normally only finds in groups where at least one member is named Shemp. Although Jaa, Chen and Uwais are far more comfortable here throwing fists than in exchanging dialogue, even the fight scenes, although as bloody and violent as one could hope, never really catch fire in the way that you hope might occur with this combination of physical talents. Hardcore action buffs might be willing to forgive the unfortunately generic nature of ''Triple Threat'' based solely on the star power alone but those who require even their basic genre fare to have a little substance to it are advised to look elsewhere.
At first glance, Halla (Halldora Geirharosdottir), the central character of ''Woman at War,'' looks exactly like cheerful and pleasant chorus director living outside of Reykjavik that she appears to be to her friends, neighbors and even her identical twin sister, New Age enthusiast Asa (also Geirharosdottir). What they don't know, but which viewers are hip to before being introduced to her more sedate side, is that she is the Mountain Woman, a notorious local eco-terrorist who has been doing battle with a environmentally detrimental aluminum plant by downing the power lines that fuel it (along with the surrounding area) with a bow and arrow. Although the police claim to be closing in on her, Halla gives no pause towards her self-ordained mission until she receives a fateful phone call one night. A few years earlier, she put in an application to adopt a child with Asa serving as the backup in case anything happened to her. Now she has been chosen to care for an adorable Ukrainian war orphan and has only a few days to decide whether or not to accept the task. Obviously, being an eco-warrior hunted by the law is not the best job for a new parent and to complicate matters further, Asa is about to leave for a two-year self-improvement retreat. For most of her life, Halla has been trying to make life better for the world at large--given the choice to now instead make life better for one very specific person, which path will she decide to choose?
In ordinary hands, a film with a premise like this might have come across like a large chunk of cinematic granola--undoubtedly good for you but perhaps a little too difficult for most to swallow. Happily, ''Woman at War'' goes down a lot easier than that thanks to a screenplay co-written by director Benedikt Erlingsson that doesn't shy away from the moral and ethical complexities of Halla's dilemma but nevertheless manages to channel them into ways that are thoughtful, emotional and even wryly funny at times. At the same time, it also takes pains to consider the notion that Halla may be driven as much by an outsized sense of self-importance as a desire to make the world a better place--not only does she hear a recurring musical theme going through her head as she goes off on her various adventures, she even imagines actually seeing the musicians playing along wherever she happens to be. Anchored by a fascinating performance by Geirharosdottir that expertly nails the complexities and contradictions of two outwardly different but inwardly complementary characters with startling precision, ''Woman at War'' is nowhere close to being the kind of aggressively well-meaning film that it might appear to be from a basic plot description and it is all the better for it.
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originally posted: 03/22/19 12:44:00
last updated: 03/22/19 23:47:37