Cinema Dispatch: Bullet Train, Elvis, and The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

We’re back with a few more movie reviews, and I’ve got to say that I’m starting to enjoy this format! I still get to watch the movies I want to, but now I can watch them on my own schedule and I keep things nice and succinct. The only problem is that I’m not getting these out in a timely manner, but relevance is overrated, am I right!? Anyway, let’s take a look at three movies that I’m sure you saw a while ago but are still interested to hear what some guy on the internet has to say about them! Let’s get started!!

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Bullet Train

Bullet Train is owned by Sony Pictures Releasing

Directed by David Leitch

A hapless assassin given the codename Ladybug (Brad Pitt) is on a very simple mission to retrieve a briefcase on a train heading to Kyoto. Naturally, these kinds of things never are that easy and he laments his bad luck while dodging other assassins on the train, and is haphazardly embroiled in a plot that is bigger than he could possibly imagine and seems to be heading in one very bloody direction.

I’m not a guy who will turn his nose up at over-the-top action spectacles or something that is intentionally cheesy and a movie like this should have been my jam by default, but even the best ingredients will go to waste if given to an untalented chef, and I just found this whole thing to be insufferable. It’s convoluted without being clever, smarmy without the charm to make up for it, and artificial to the point that nothing seems to actually matter. The only part of the movie that resonated with me was the relationship between Lemon and Tangerine as Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson had great chemistry and added some genuine heart to an otherwise insincere story, and while I feel like this is one of the most Monkeys’ Paw wishes imaginable, I’d kind of like to see what could be done with a spinoff focusing on them specifically. Andrew Koji also stands out from everything else with a very angry and desperate performance that’s still about as one-note as everything else in the movie, but at least it’s a different note being played and does a great job playing it. Everything else though is just laden with insufferable dialogue and compounding coincidences that just drain any investment you can have in the characters or the plot itself; especially our protagonist who is just in the wrong place at the wrong time. For that kind of story to work, it has to ultimately circle back around to them actually being the right person to be there, but that would require a level of emotional investment that this movie is just unwilling to extend and so Brad Pitt feels like as distant to the story as those of us sitting in the theater watching him awkwardly stumble his way through a place he doesn’t belong; like an uninvited party guest asking everyone where the bathroom is. With the threadbare story, the quip-tastic dialogue, and the general lack of impact or weight from any of the narrative beats, it falls somewhere between a Rick and Morty episode and one of those award show skits with a bunch of celebrities are comically inserted into another movie. If we take it on these terms, as little more than entertainment fluff with a bunch of famous people in it, does it manage to work? Sort of, I guess. It’s competent in its action and the actors are fine for what they’re asked to do, but it’s also not that inspiring or clever in its shallowness and I had my fill of everything it had to offer well before it got to its big cameos at the end. At best it’s a misguided attempt from Hollywood to recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle magic of early Tarantino as well as the director’s own early success with John Wick, and at worst it’s the cinematic equivalent of Steve Buscemi in a backwards baseball cap asking his fellow kids how they are doing. It’s not without its charms, but why settle for the smoothed-over corporate version of stylized action shlock when the genuine article is easier to find than ever?

2 out of 5

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Elvis

Elvis is owned by Warner Bros Pictures

Directed by Baz Luhrmann

The King of Rock and Roll Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) is an enigmatic figure for those who only know him by reputation, but behind all the glitz and glamour was a man with a lot of talent and just as many demons to match. One such demon was his manager Col Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) who saw a lot of potential in this young musician and made sure to extract as much of it as he could in the time that he knew him. What is the truth behind the icon, and how did he go from being the biggest star in the world to being a parody of himself with one of the more infamous and tragic fates in music history?

Luhrmann has said that he wanted to make this movie because the young people don’t care about Elvis, and you can count me among them because for my entire life he has been nothing more than a caricature of gaudy trash and embarrassing decline. To me, he’s as unreal as other larger-than-life figures like The Three Stooges or Captain Kirk, and with an endless line of mocking parodies or outright embarrassing oddities like The Identical, it’s certainly a herculean task that I applaud Luhrmann for having the guts to undertake even if the end result is a decidedly mixed bag. He ended up being the perfect guy to turn Elvis into a star once again, but I’m less convinced that he was the right choice for a biopic which is a shame because the one thing I wanted out of an Elvis movie is to understand exactly who this Elvis guy is behind the hair, the costumes, and that very particular way he talks that everyone and their mother has a bad version of. Luhrmann’s strength is in using cinematic language to project strong emotions and he can get across a lot of complex ideas in what is otherwise a silly and gaudy package. Watching Elvis thrust his junk at squealing girls is certainly an evocative image, but the layers of pathos and cultural taboo that hover over these scenes make them transgressive in a way that actually does feel relevant and accomplishes Luhrmann’s stated goal. However, he can’t rely on his imagery and bombastic set pieces for the whole movie and whenever he has to sit down and tell the story of Elvis the man and not Elvis the icon; he just comes off as ill-equipped for the job. Perhaps there is a degree of bias here as Elvis has never been more than a caricature to me, so perhaps the most authentic version of that character is still going to come off as a cartoon when I see it. No matter how much time I spent with the character, I just never felt like I got to know Elvis himself, even with Austin Butler giving a heck of a performance, and some of it has to do with the framing of the movie which is its own can of worms. I’m not qualified to talk about Elvis’s coopting (or outright theft) of black culture and black music, and I couldn’t tell you if he was a genuinely decent person in real life. Based on this movie though, he comes off as rather one-dimensional and spineless with all the black people around him giving him thumbs up and nothing bad that happens in his life ultimately being his fault which is presumably to keep his image as clean as possible, but in doing so robs him of his agency and he seems to be dragged into everything in the most passive way possible. Where all the drama and tension ends up falling on is Tom Hanks who is fantastic here; completely disappearing into the role of this self-justifying parasite who never thinks twice about the damage he’s doing, and that level of pure villainy gives his character a depth and magnetism that completely overshadows Austin Butler’s performance, though by no real fault of his own as he’s only given so much to do here. The thing is that we already got the best version of this movie over a decade ago with Walk Hard: The Dewy Cox story which is only slightly more cartoonish than what Luhrmann is going for here, and frankly I found Dewy to be a more compelling and complex character despite it being an outright parody film. I mean I guess being compared to one of my favorite movies of all time (a five-star comedy if I’ve ever seen one) is its own form of praise, and I can’t deny that Luhrmann’s energy is infectious, but I still left this movie feeling like I had only the most surface level understanding of the man and that just feels like a missed opportunity.

3 out of 5

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The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is owned by Lionsgate

Directed by Tom Gormican

Nicolas Cage (Nicolas Cage) is having a rough go of it as the roles he is accustomed to are getting harder and harder to come by and his debts continue to mount as he continues to indulge in his Movie Star lifestyle. Worst of all, this slump and obsession with his career his has only deepened the wedge between him and his family (Sharon Horgan and Lily Sheen) who are growing more and more distant. With the latest role he’s poured his heart and soul into ultimately going to someone else, he decides to take a quick payday to show up for some rich guy’s birthday party. Said rich guy is Javi (Pedro Pascal) who is a lifelong Nicolas Cage fan, but seems to be caught up in some very shady stuff that has caught the attention of a few CIA agents (Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz) who try to recruit Cage into some spy shenanigans. It’s up to World’s Greatest Actor Nicolas Cage to uncover the secrets of Javi’s empire while also being a charming and affable guest to his benefactor. That and he starts working on a new movie script with Javi who certainly has some interesting ideas for what he should do next!

Nicolas Cage is easily my favorite actor of all time with many of his movies showing up on my list of favorite films of all time. Face/Off, Bringing Out The Dead, the recent Pig, all classics worthy of any film aficionado’s library, but even his more trashy stuff like Mandy, Parents, and Wild at Heart reveal a true love for cinema, storytelling, and the extremes of human emotion. He of course has a few duds in his filmography (what actor doesn’t?), but the guy will always light up the screen in whatever he shows up in and I’m glad that he’s become such an icon of off-beat cinema at a time when many are complaining about the oversaturation of samey blockbusters. All that is to say that I thought his latest movie, which directly interrogates his own reputation, both good and bad, is… pretty okay. The fact that it’s a movie about him and his career lends a certain amount of weight to it, and it creates the expectation that he not only address his failings, but in some way transcend them; otherwise you’re just pulling a My Name Is Bruce and letting the audience laugh at you while trying to pretend you’re in on the joke. Thankfully it’s better than that movie, but it also never really finds the brutal honesty of something like Adaptation or even Bo Burnham: Inside, and so the film feels a little bit underwhelming. Pedro Pascal certainly has some fun bouncing off of Nic Cage and their relationship does grow in an interesting way over time, but the movie fails to move past its premise and give us a worthwhile story to wrap it around. The backstory for Pascal’s character devolves into straight-to-video action shlock that’s all too familiar for those of us who saw some of Cage’s lesser outings, and it feels like a waste to get Haddish and Barinholtz for roles that are this paper-thin. The third act, while competently put together and with some great comedic bits from Cage, ultimately falls flat as the movie telegraphs its own climax in a way that I’m sure they thought was clever but felt like a huge misstep. Thankfully we’ve still got Nicolas Cage who obviously puts in a heck of a performance as a (presumably) exaggerated version of himself and the walk down memory lane for his career definitely adds a lot of charm to this for anyone who’s invested in his filmography. I particularly loved a running gag which finds a way to have Early Nic Cage talk to Modern Nic Cage that frankly feels like it should have been the core of the film, and it’s probably the most brutally honest bit of self-reflection the movie has to offer. His relationship with his family is also well realized, especially with the way he portrays himself to be a bad father, but it as well gets lost in the shuffle and only pokes its head in on occasion. Much like the Elvis movie, I think this needed to ground itself a bit more to reality because the fun parts may be what you end up remembering most, but the lack of truly gripping moments with the main character means that it’s still all too forgettable. It’s certainly not an embarrassment for Cage as he himself comes off very well in this, but I was hoping this movie would offer some more genuine insights into the man in front of the camera rather than try to sell me on his persona. I already know he’s great, as my blu ray copy of Drive Angry undoubtedly proves!

3 out of 5

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